Royal Academy of Arts, London
7 June—15 August 2011
By Dr JANET McKENZIE
A single work, Homage to Michael Spens (2011) by Scottish artist John Bellany, however, contradicts this observation, being so quintessentially a Bellany, and possessing the essence of his long career in humanistic, expressionistic oeuvre. It simultaneously tells several stories of the artist, the subject, their paths crossing at key stages in their lives, and above all a friendship based on a shared faith in life, in art, and in family love. It tells an intensely personal narrative of survival against all odds from grave illness and the grave itself. It makes reference to numerous previous paintings by John Bellany, and his mentors, (Bosch, Breughel, Beckmann and Australian artist Arthur Boyd). It is one of Bellany’s finest paintings.
The triptych was painted in a remarkable four days, in January of this year, at a time when John Bellany had been seriously ill with coronary disease and acute spinal pain, 25 years after a liver transplant. Bellany and Spens met in Australia in 1983. And in 1984, Bellany painted what Spens believed to be a “quick sketch”, in his London studio where Spens, as Editor of Studio International, had visited the artist to arrange coverage of his forthcoming exhibition (at Fischer Fine Art), but which evolved into a large, powerful painting (on loan to the University of Dundee).
The Bellany and Spens families have enjoyed a close professional relationship and friendship. Historically they each spring from opposite shores of the Firth of Forth and its access to the North Sea. Both are aware of the deep religious and survival concerns that such sea-faring communities experience. John Bellany was one of the few individuals to whom one could turn to assuage the pain of terminal illness. Michael Spens had been diagnosed with cancer in 1996 and had surgery. Four years on, more tumours were discovered. In December 2000 he was given six weeks to live, although just in time an experimental dose of wonder-drug Interferon was offered. His continued survival, like John Bellany’s, is nothing short of miraculous.
In December 2010, Spens spent four weeks in bed, becoming increasingly frail. Bellany at the end of the telephone was a great comfort. He asked many questions, including, “Do you have a recent photograph?” I replied, “I have a Christmas one. Yes, I’ll send you a copy”. On hearing that Spens had gotten out of bed, Bellany said, “Ach, Janet, he’s done a Lazarus! … again”. I replied, “Try being Mrs Lazarus”. We laughed. By the time the photos were printed, an image of this vast painting arrived in the post. Six months before, medical reports had announced that Bellany was going blind. He could barely walk for the pain, so how could he paint a 12-feet-wide triptych of Michael Spens ascending heavenwards, surrounded by a stoical but sad family; the subject’s fabled forebear, Sir Patrick Spens, in his darkened garb and prominent hat, carries a sense of foreboding. But it also references, as the artist explains, the “invariable role of genetics” in longevity, and survival against the odds. And on the left of the centre panel, there is what appears to be a profile of the artist, observing and sharing pain and anticipatory grief. He is thus artist-as-witness, who guides the viewer through life’s essential journey, ultimately addressing death.
In keeping with Bellany’s prodigious output, there are numerous figures, some half human and half bird, that refer to the long mythology of Scottish fisher folk with the sea in relation to livelihood and everyday life: an earlier maritime link for Spens is also symbolic of the spiritual journey that every human travels. Homage to Michael Spens (2011) therefore must be seen as tribute to the creative spirit, to endurance and enduring friendship.