Glasgow is in the midst of celebrating one of its staunchest defenders, the artist and writer Alasdair Gray. I had the pleasure of visiting the Kelvingrove Gallery’s tribute, Alasdair Gray: From the personal to the universal, with my artist comrade Allan, a maze of drawings and paintings unfurling before us in the vast labyrinth beneath the heavy red sandstone building.
Gray’s imagination is astounding. His writing floods pages like surrealist gloop, flowing thickly and inevitably despite its startling absurdity. And though his artwork, less Dalinian, is more rooted in reality, more literal, his eyes see a Glasgow few have imagined. Gray’s Glasgow ebbs and flows with its own unsettling perspective, a gently sickening distortion one nonetheless believes, convinced one is rolling through a vivid if perplexing dream.
I get the sense that Gray, just like his infamous character Lanark (of the novel with the same name), struggles only to tell the truth. His pictures might be described as grotesque, with cackling faces, prominent noses, puffy lips, sunken eye sockets. As his character is chided for making monstrous representations of people, Gray himself might be considered unkind to his subjects, but I find his pictures utterly delightful for being sure impressions of real people. Gray doesn’t simply doodle oddballs and freaks, but captures endlessly fascinating individuals. ‘I will try to tell the truth,’ as Lanark promises. And not for shady purposes: these drawings feel celebratory of our individuality, of our uniqueness, of the endless fascinating variety of the human race.
Opting not to leave Glasgow after his studies at the well-know Glasgow School of Art (spectacularly designed by the celebrated Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and spectacularly burnt down only this year on the day of the graduating exhibition, final projects and all, which in itself would make a furious and melancholic cataclysmic Gray picture), Gray was eventually commissioned for a fitting task for such a proud Glaswegian. As ‘City Recorder’ in the 1970s, he was requested to produce a series of images of Glasgow people and life. The works—line drawings, subtly coloured, often on brown paper—exude an honest and fierce love for the city and its people. The task melds seamlessly with Duncan Thaw’s observations in Lanark (2007: 243):
‘Glasgow is a magnificent city,’ said McAlpin. ‘Why do we hardly ever notice that?’
‘Because nobody imagines living here,’ said Thaw. McAlpin lit a cigarette and said, ‘If you want to explain that I’ll certainly listen.’
‘Then think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively. What is Glasgow to most of us? A house, the place we work, a football park or golf course, some pubs and connecting streets. That’s all. No, I’m wrong, there’s also the cinema and library. And when our imagination needs exercise we use these to visit London, Paris, Rome under the Caesars, and the American West at the turn of the century, anywhere but here and now. Imaginatively Glasgow exists as a music-hall song and a few bad novels. That’s all we’ve given to the world outside. It’s all we’ve given to ourselves.’
Gray’s entire life has been dedicated to giving himself and his fellow Glaswegians an imaginative Glasgow rich with the gritty pulsing life and gusto of an industrial city which has successfully reinvented itself as a culturally strong metropolis. London may lure many with its long imaginative history, but tucked away in Scotland, in the shadow of cosmopolitan Edinburgh, Glasgow has been determinedly carving out a place in our literary and artistic landscapes. Gray might teach us not to abandon our hamlets in search of fame and fortune, if our hearts are really there. For in ‘waiting for something to turn up’ we might turn our hand to describing our cities to ourselves and others, and demonstrate the significance of our distinct and particular lives—factories, grotesque characters and vacant lots and all.
Gray, Alasdair. 2007 (1969, 1981) Lanark. Canongate: Edinburgh.
Alasdair Gray: From the Personal to the Universal is showing at Kelvingrove until Sunday 22 February 2015, £5 / £3.