I was recently invited to write an introduction to a publication celebrating the new Alasdair Gray exhibition at the Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities in London, which will be running from June 2018 until January 2019. The fully illustrated catalog is available here and is well worth a look, being made up of portraits borrowed from Alasdair’s home. As well as images from pieces in the exhibition, there are essays on Gray’s work by Allan Massie and Stuart Kelly, both widely respected writers and critics who have long associations with the artist. I’m grateful for being able to reproduce my introduction here. The museum on 11 Mare Street, E8, London. And as I explain below, it’s no ordinary museum.
Introduction: ‘Paintings, Drawings & Notebooks’ – Alasdair Gray at the Viktor Wynd Museum, 2018-19
by Rodge Glass
When I heard that a selection of Alasdair Gray’s art was going to be exhibited in the Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, I remember thinking, Ah yes, that makes sense. As regular visitors may know, this started out as a basement curiosity shop, expanding into an attempt to fill that vast space between ‘what the establishment elite believes is worth of worship and what exists in the world.’ In my opinion, that makes Gray a perfect fit. Unnoticed by that elite for decades, Gray has always been rooted firmly in his world, primarily being concerned with recording people and physical spaces who would otherwise disappear if he didn’t render them. For decades, he himself was considered to be a curiosity by the few who were aware of his practice. Even within the Scottish art world, he was a footnote. That has since changed, and radically. But before stepping into this space, it’s worth knowing about where he started out. With Gray, the past is often the present, the present very much in the past.
Alasdair Gray is, was, has always been both visual artist and writer. From his earliest childhood sketches, which blended picture into word into picture, he has spent a lifetime resisting expectation that the two should remain separate. As an ambitious teenager writing in notebooks now housed in the National Library of Scotland, he imagined a future shelf of books he would write, all of which he would illustrate himself: a novel, a book of collected short stories, a book of collected non-fiction, a book of collected plays, a book of collected poems. Each of those, he expected, would include portraits of people and places in his home city of Glasgow, some dense and intricate, some spare line drawings. Astonishingly, he did eventually publish all the books on that imagined shelf, though it took him until his seventies to realize the ambition, and there were many digressions along the way.
With Gray, you have to be patient with digressions. Long gestation periods are usual for an artist who took thirty years to write his first novel, Lanark (1981), a book that transformed the Scottish literary landscape and made the artist an overnight success at fifty-one. A success, that is, as a writer. Lanark is every bit as much a work of visual art as it is a novel, and is now widely regarded as a classic of the form. But somewhere in the ensuing noise around publication, the fact that Gray had always considered his visual practice of equal value to his literary art seemed to be lost. Over the following decades, he complained that one form had overtaken the other. Writing, he described as draining. Painting, an invigorating physical activity that gave him energy.
All Gray’s literary output contained examples of his distinctive visual practice intruding on the text – those clean, sensitive pen drawings among them – as well as featuring book covers which were birthed as paintings. Despite producing over twenty books in this manner across the literary spectrum – from the fantastical collection Unlikely Stories, Mostly (1983) to the playful, prize-winning novel Poor Things (1992) to his vast non-fiction work The Book of Prefaces (2000) – this visual element was often dismissed by critics as somehow a minor adornment to the main work, the words. Gray disagreed, and continued working. Sometimes on his biblical-themed murals, some of which have since been destroyed, or painted over, or dismantled since. Also, on his growing archive of portraits and landscapes which built up an evolving picture of his disappearing city, his Glasgow. Elements of each of these were sometimes co-opted for other works; Gray is nothing if not a serial recycler, often re-using lost images, or trying to improve on past works with new versions. All this time Gray painted for pleasure, considering himself ‘deeply unfashionable’. Having never left his home city, and been neither organized nor well connected, he never expected to be.
And so it proved for many more years, something perhaps accentuated by the fact that Gray was disorganised, often living in penury, painting in pubs for the price of his meals and sketching portraits for fans of his literary work in the title pages of his books. But there’s no doubt, fast-forwarding to the present day, that the value of this work is being reappraised now. That’s not just about younger artists namechecking an elder, though that’s part of the picture, and the two-part ‘Spheres of Influence’ exhibition at GoMa and Glasgow School of Art to celebrate Gray’s 80th birthday was revealing in terms of understanding both where his work came from and how it has been passed on to others. But the most notable change in Gray’s artistic fortune is one that is hidden from visitors.
Sorcha Dallas became Gray’s art agent a decade ago. Since then she has dedicated a huge amount of time and energy to finding and cataloguing Gray’s huge disparate output stretching back over six decades and more, then presenting it in new and innovative ways. One of those ways is, as described above, putting Gray under new light. Another is allowing the work to be seen in its own right, rather than simply as an addendum or footnote to the books the artist has also produced.
The exhibition at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in 2014/15, ‘From the Personal to the Universal’, was an example of how this could work. It took place in the temporary basement gallery space, but saw more visitors witnessing Gray’s art in the few months it was on display than had done so for most of his life up to that point. It wasn’t until I visited this exhibition myself – moving through Gray’s Glasgow Art School work from the 1950s, on to reproductions of his ambitious, lost murals, on to the portraits created as part of his work as Artist Recorder at the People’s Palace Museum in Glasgow in the 1970s – that I felt I could appreciate Gray’s visual output without feeling the unspoken pressure of literary context. The only words here were arced around the figures being portrayed.
Even these helped me see Gray in new ways. One of his pieces, of his son Andrew aged 7 in his then-home in Kersland Street, seemed familiar and unfamiliar all at once. Hadn’t I come across it before? Then I noticed the words, ‘Drawn 1972. Painted 2009.’ For Gray, nothing is ever finished. Every rendered image is always in a state of flux, of incompleteness, waiting to be altered to take in new perspectives or lifted and placed in another context. This can be seen writ large in his ‘Cowcaddens Streetscape in the Fifties’ (1964), also the much more recent Glasgow Hillhead Underground mural, which is a kind of who’s who of Gray vignettes and emblems recognisable to fans. It also exists in Gray’s largest and most-viewed mural at the Oran Mor Arts Centre in Glasgow, which features his glorious night sky which blends Adam and Eve, entwined below the stars, with contemporary real-life figures from the city’s West End. As ever, recording the disappearing. Juxtaposing the real and the unreal. And open to new, complementing perspectives.
All of which brings me to the selection featured here in Viktor Wynd’s Museum, featuring a series of Gray portraits, some of which are new to me – those of Tony Bliss (husband of Mary, who Gray once proposed to, way back in 1959), also Helen Mitchel, Alan Singleton. I’m pleased to see, in particular, that several of Gray’s portraits of May Hooper are featured, being an example of just the sort of multiple-view approach discussed above. May, distractedly looking away from the artist, chair barely visible. May in white bodice, framed by a much larger chair, which dominates the frame. May, naked, the chair she’s sitting on now invisible, looking directly at the artist. Each of these are valuable pieces from the Gray visual archive, some of which lay partly finished in the artist’s studio room in his home for many years before being completed. (Not that they ever are.)
It’s interesting, I think, both before and after Gray’s literary breakthroughs, that he was producing visual art which few noticed at the time, but which is now coming to prominence, and being re-examined in a new context. The longer that passes, the less marginal these appear. Indeed, old Gray murals are still literally being uncovered, with one from 1965 just going on display for the first time in 2018 in Glasgow. (Of course, he’s added a poem to the new version, fifty years on.) Considering the prominence of the Oran Mor mural, plus the Hillhead Underground mural, and the growing interest in Gray’s art internationally, it seems the visual practice is finally getting a bit of the attention it deserves. But in my opinion, that only makes it more special to be able to witness Gray’s work in its natural home – a Museum of Curiosities.