Over the last few days I’ve been reading online the tributes and obituaries to John Bellany, the Scottish painter who died last week aged 71. I didn’t actually find out about his death until Saturday when I was stood in front of a particularly marvelous large early painting by Bellany at ‘Aquatopia’, the rather unfortunately named, but quite good exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary with a friend who mentioned it.
I was initially a bit shocked, but then not entirely surprised as he had a formidable reputation for living life to the full, especially when it came to the demon drink, which had taken it’s toll on his health. This can be seen with his need for a liver transplant in his forties and suffering three heart attacks, one on the way to a major retrospective of his work in Glasgow in 2005. Indeed, thinking about it, I was not even sure if he was still alive, having lost touch with his work in the last ten years having previously been a fan. You would be hard pressed to find a more passionate painter in modern times, and fittingly he died with a paintbrush in his hand.
I used to live in Bellany’s native Edinburgh (he was actually born and raised in Port Seton, about ten miles from the Scottish capital), and saw his work everywhere in the local galleries, and even hanging in the living room of notorious reformed Barlinnie hard man Jimmy Boyle, whose house I used to pass on the way to the sea. I furtively and enviously looked across to the view in the window where a large colourful Bellany painting hung on the wall. My fellow artists in the studio I worked with used to gently mock his work, but I always admired it and learned a great deal about figurative painting and composition from him. I think my artist friends, who were largely Edinburgh born and had studied at the College of Art, were just understandably tired of his work everywhere and the ‘legend’ of the man in the city. My friend Donald, thought those self portraits in his hospital bed after his liver transplant were hilarious: ‘just too much, give it a rest,big man’. But I think they are great, and love their brutal honesty. They are in the great European tradition of artists such as Goya, Munch and Beckmann, some of my other favourite painters.
I’ve really enjoyed looking at his recent paintings in the last few days: they are largely scenes of Port Seton harbor in the most magnificent colour, a real return to form after a few years where I thought things were looking repetitive and over mannered. My favourite paintings though are the ones created in his destructive, alcoholic days, which are chaotic, everything teetering at the point of collapse. The frenetic handling of paint disturbingly captures the artist’s inner mental turmoil.
As that other great Scottish painter, Alan Davie said of him, at his best John Bellany was a painter of ‘true and powerful Nordic power’.