3rd January

At the John Bellany Exhibition

What are these rooms full of? What are these pictures about? You walk past blood and fish-guts, unspeakable horrors real and imagined, unremitting toil, raw sex, turmoil, violence, and the symbols of a religion that goes beyond sect or creed in its relentless chess-game of life and death. There is something local about this ferocious art. When a Scottish Calvinist goes round the back of the world into darkness he will meet a Scottish Catholic coming the other way. And Hell may be there, but what sign of Heaven, or God?

This art has no peace. Even in the late landscapes of Italy the sky looms over towns and villages, threatening destruction. Through all these rooms you feel you are following a man who still, at seventy, can only wrestle and grapple with life.

But in one small section you do find tranquillity. Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, 1988. Bellany’s liver has packed in under the abuse he has dealt it. He is admitted for a transplant. The operation, like so much that has happened to him, is a challenge. He comes through it. The new liver takes to him. Regaining consciousness, he cannot yet believe he is alive. He asks for pencil and paper and starts to draw. His hand. Himself. Self-portrait after self-portrait. He draws and paints himself back into life. He stares out at himself, at the place he is in, at life returning. And because he is still weak, at the mercy of tubes and wires and the healing process, there is a kind of peace, a kind of acceptance, and something else – a bright, clean, heavenly light.

You remember these hospital images from when you first saw them, a quarter of a century ago. You were a young man then, and the Bellany you were looking at was in his mid-forties, younger than you are now. But you had thought you were looking at an old man, at the resurrection of an old man. It is a shock to realise how young he was, how much more life he had in him.

And you too. And still have. Here you are today, his paintings and you, on this grey Edinburgh afternoon, alive.

Reader: James Robertson
Fiddle: Aidan O'Rourke
Subscribe here for more stories & music