Over a long and prolific career, John Bellany came to be considered one of Britain’s foremost figurative painters. Born in the small fishing town of Port Seton in East Lothian, where Calvinism was deeply engrained, Bellany described the relationship between the sacred and profane as being among his most important subjects.
‘Cradle of Magic’ spans three decades of Bellany’s practice. Eschewing straight-forward narratives, he worked intuitively and unceasingly; his paintings balancing the uncanny, joyful and violent in powerful and original ways. His imagery – ghoulish hybridised creatures, fishermen and the sea, chained couples (The Couple, 1968) – recurs, with figures appearing in multiple canvases as if at different stages of a journey.
The exhibition’s earliest Bellany work – The Crucifixion, 1963 – dates from his time at Edinburgh Collegeof Art, where he obsessively reimagined Old Master paintings by Grünewald, Bellini and Rembrandt, among others. In these ‘transcriptions’, religious and classical subjects were recast according to the artist’s
memories and experiences: bloody, gutted fish replacing the three figures in The Crucifixion. He explained: ‘You look at the place you come from with such intensity that the painting has a meaning that is universal.’
The 70s and 80s present a darker period for the artist. The profound impact of a visit to Buchenwald concentration camp in 1967 is immediately evident in major paintings such as Pourquoi?, 1967. The spectreof depression, alcoholism and physical illness, with which Bellany wrestled throughout his life, is also felt in intimate works such as Addenbrookes Hospital – Self-Portrait, 1988, sketched from the artist’s hospital bed following a liver transplant. Bellany’s 1989 portrait of Alan Davie, whom he greatly admired, is also included in the exhibition.
‘Cradle of Magic’ is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue featuring an essay by art historian Mel Gooding. Also included are extracts from previously unprinted recordings with both artists, made for National Life Stories Artists’ Lives oral history project at the British Library (www.bl.uk/nls/artists)
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