John Bellany (1942-2013): The Wild Days
In conjunction with Edinburgh Art Festival 2018, the Open Eye Gallery presents a large-scale exhibition centring on John Bellany’s output during his turbulent life in the 1980s. Featuring many previously unseen paintings, all held by the artist’s estate, the exhibition shows Bellany’s work undertaken during the decade to include some of the most fervent and passionate examples of the ideas and iconography that preoccupied him throughout his prolific career. Although many critics and curators have named Bellany as the most significant Scottish painter of the twentieth century, the very distinctive body of work produced during the early 1980s is often overlooked in summaries of his career.
A wild period, from the late 1970s into the early 1980s saw Bellany, a hell-raiser par excellence, making some of his greatest paintings. His expressionism found new extremes with ‘paint spilled onto the canvas like blood’. Confrontation and conflict dominate: there is no resolution, only disintegration. The highly personal subject matter reflects the artist’s innermost thoughts concerning dicing with death, succumbing to temptation and the recurring image of the fateful clock. All this imagery suggests a man at the end of his tether, but these paintings remain amongst his most powerful statements, fearless in execution and full of painterly grandeur. As Alan Riach has written ‘no modern artist has taken his imagination so recklessly through extremes of understanding and expressed this understanding so powerfully’. Presenting an extensive collection of Bellany’s painting from his ‘wild days’ shows it to comprise some of the most densely symbolic and poignantly confessional examples of his entire output.
In the early 1980s Bellany was living in Clapham, London, with his second wife, Juliet Lister, and working as a lecturer at Goldsmiths College of Art. He was drinking heavily and Juliet, suffering from mental health problems, was spending most of the time in hospital. In 1983 Bellany went to Australia as artist-in-residence at the Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne, for the summer semester. When Bellany arrived in Australia it was a holiday for the first day of spring and he went to a party at the country house of artist, Clifton Pugh, where he met, as he said, ‘all of the Australian hierarchy in one fell swoop’. The paintings produced in Australia were his most colourful yet, which Bellany considered to be a result of the different light in Australia.
The exhibition will also include a selection of work from the years in which Bellany suffered from acute liver disease as a result of his alcoholism. In 1988 Bellany, in a desperate state of health, was given the opportunity to receive a life-saving liver transplant at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge. At the time the procedure was still largely experimental and survival was uncertain but Bellany made it through the operation and was drawing again within hours of waking from the anaesthetic. A series of paintings from the year after the transplant operation show the artist as Lazarus, risen from the dead. Bellany’s great friend, poet Alan Bold, has said that often ‘the surface of the canvas seems too fragile to withstand the emotional onslaught’ of the artist’s way of working, and this is never more true than during Bellany’s Wild Days.