Stenton Gallery

The old man and the sea

Visual Art By Catriona Black

The sounds of a party are booming out of Port Seton's day centre and I freeze in my tracks. It doesn't seem like a good time to go in and see the John Bellany paintings, but before I can escape, the door whips open and I'm ushered in. Above the din, I explain what I want to see, and next thing I know, I'm standing in the middle of a large room, surrounded by dozens of old folk.
The Singing Kettle's accordionist is right behind me, whipping his seated audience into a whooping frenzy of delight. I dodge this way and that to avoid the exuberant birling of the only dancer, Mary, an OAP with more energy than me. Three bright orange harbour scenes adorn the walls, adding to the cheerful chaos. I try to study the pictures, while attempting simultaneously to avoid blocking the accordionist's view, or colliding with Mary.
These are not the kind of John Bellany paintings I learned about at university. There's no angst, doom or deep-seated Calvinist guilt. There are no beaked fishermen or miserable herring girls under poisonously heavy clouds. Instead there is the electric buzz of orange skies and local boats moored safely in harbour. A number of the people in this room probably sailed on those boats, and gutted fish at those harbours, Port Seton and Eyemouth.
John Bellany is Port Seton's most famous son, and he was rewarded for his achievements just over two weeks ago with the inaugural Freedom of East Lothian. In celebration of the honour, the artist's work is on show in coastal towns and villages across the county. If you have a car, it's a grand day out; if you haven't, make it a week's holiday.
This is the way to see Bellany's paintings. Hung among his native fishing communities, the canvases live and breathe the sea air. Everywhere I go, ordinary people tell me stories about the paintings, about the people in them, and about the boats. Boats mean more to people here than I can ever understand. They not only have histories, but ancestries too. 'I have the boat that came after that one,' somebody tells me, pointing to a watercolour. I'm not sure what that means, except that boats are like family members to people here.
Port Seton's Harbour Gallery brings you exceptionally close to the subject matter. Occupying the front room of an ordinary house, it commands a fine view of the harbour which has starred in Bellany's works throughout his life. The main attraction here is a large square canvas of the artist's father and his friend, Peter Donaldson, at Port Seton Harbour. Painted behind the pair is the very house in which you stand. The canvas is a flood of bright orange, the colour which has permeated Bellany's work since his recovery from liver failure in 1988. The artist's work has been divided by critics into pre-op anguish (he had an organ transplant) and post-op tranquillity, one using the memorable phrase 'figurative marmalade' to describe this new, orange-soaked zest for life.
Port Seton Library is temporary home to some very early Bellany work, lent by friends and relatives, which speak volumes about the artist's early influences. The Ark, painted in Bellany's first year at art college, is a jumble of signs and symbols which immediately recalls the jazz-influenced compositions of Scottish painter Alan Davie. The Boatyard, painted the following year, is an abstract mesh of encrusted, blackened shapes under the influence of American abstract expressionism. The stunning Portrait Of Margaret, Bellany's sister, is star of the library show. Painted in 1968, Margaret is dressed in the style of a 17th-century Dutch puritan. She stands stiff and sullen, the verticals of the composition adding to the general starched quality of the atmosphere. Bellany's left eye, from a self-portrait hanging on the wall behind, stares out at the viewer. This is a Rembrandt trick, and indeed the whole painting is a tribute to the Dutch master.
In my view Bellany never surpassed his unique works of the late 1960s, masterpieces of mood and allegory, loaded with tightly clenched emotion and age-old symbolism. Two of his most potent masterpieces, Allegory and The Obsession, are owned by the National Galleries of Scotland and the City Art Centre in Edinburgh. Another monumental work of the late 1960s was gifted by the artist to the Scottish parliament last year. It's a shame that none of these was borrowed for the occasion, East Lothian Council preferring instead to gather together works owned locally, along with whatever the artist's dealer could provide.
Most of this is recent work, smaller in scale and inconsistent in quality. In 1974, Bellany admitted to having "to paint a dozen to get a beauty", and some of what's on show could be the wrong part of that dozen.
That doesn't stop them flying off the walls at Stenton Gallery, in the village of the same name. The exhibition is re-jigged before my eyes, when a pair of paintings are removed for a customer in Edinburgh. But my favourites remain, including Incident At The Beer Hall, where a grim-looking couple are squashed together in a claustrophobic interior. Their bodies face each other, sex implied by the phallic symbolism of the lighthouse and cocktail glass, but their faces look away, numbly, towards the viewer. There's an even more dysfunctional couple portrayed in the etching, Rose And Crown, which is presumably from the mid-1980s (none of the works are dated). They're drunk and leery in a bar, their lopsided, alcohol-soaked grimaces quite compelling in a grizzly kind of way. He plays his card, or perhaps it's a domino, on the table. He eyes you, waiting for your move. Bellany, ruined with alcohol, knew he was dicing with death; gamblers, clocks and fish bones make frequent appearances to that effect. In the end, Bellany won the gamble. He gave up drink, remarried his first wife, Helen, and recovered fully from the dangerous liver transplant. And, judging by the orange harbour scenes of the last few years, he is now living happily ever after.

Sunday Herald,13 March 2005