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Art of Scotland's John Bellany colors with age

By Ian McKenzie

EDINBURGH (Reuters) - Leading Scottish artist John Bellany banishes his personal demons with an explosion of color in an exhibition charting the his progress over the past 50 years at the National Gallery in Edinburgh.

"John Bellany: A Passion for Life" is a moving retrospective of some 75 oils, watercolors, drawings and prints marking Bellany's 70th birthday this year in a show that will last until January 27th.

Born into a fishing family at Port Seton, just west of the capital, Bellany attended the Edinburgh and London colleges of art in the 1960s. His first youthful exhibition was held, ironically, with paintings propped against the railings outside the National Gallery, which is now celebrating his work.

Exhibition curator Keith Hartley places Bellany firmly in the "realism" tradition of Scottish art and northern European painting, with big, bold canvasses and striking imagery.

His art was influenced by his strict Calvinist upbringing, with the church teachings of hell-fire and original sin. This was strengthened by a visit to the Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp in early 1967.

"I think that had a very deep effect on him. There are paintings in the exhibition about that, and I think that colored his art for several years, looking into the abyss of what human beings could do," Hartley told Reuters.

In the 1980s, Bellany was shaken by the illness of his second wife Juliet, who died in 1985. A heavy drinker, he received a liver transplant two years later which in turn changed his life.

He remarried his first wife Helen, who said the transplant gave him "a completely new lease on life, although he is frail now."

Visits to Mexico and Italy also gave him a new outlook, marked by the explosion of colors in his later works.

"When you go into the rooms (showing his latter period) they are full of gusto, full of sensuosity, they are full of color and you feel that this renewed sense of life that he now has gave him a second chance," Hartley said.

One thing hasn't changed, however. His wife Helen said the old Calvinist work ethic remained strong. He rises early to get to his easel.

"That'll be the last thing that never will stop. It's just something he has to do," she said.

(Edited by Paul Casciato)

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