Alasdair Gray’s career in the visual arts should come as no shock to those of us who are better acquainted with his writing; what may be of some surprise however, is the breadth and depth of the collection of images brought together in A life in pictures, representing the fruits of over sixty years of his labours. With his usual spritely prose, Gray leads us from his earliest creations in the 1950s, and the long-lost Glasgow in which he grew up, to more recent projects such as his remarkably ambitious designs for the interior of Glasgow’s Oran Mor. Reading the book, it is hard not to be struck by his brilliance as an artist, by the vigour and energy he has tirelessly brought—and continues to do so at over seventy years old—to his creative endeavours, and by the perseverance and sheer determination with which he has embodied the values that define his life as an artist.
I made pictures to see imaginary worlds that seemed more exciting than familiar reality. The scope of these worlds is immense, all encompassing perhaps, taking in luxuriantly coloured and ornately decorated murals, the stark draughtsmanship of portraits and anatomical drawings, the distinctive designs of his commercial illustration work that has appeared on numerous book covers and posters, and a range of cityscapes and landscapes such as Glasgow Triumph of Death (1961) and Dawn Firth (1974). Yet this is much more than just a narrated catalogue of his work, with the book emphasizing above all else, the role played by friendships and communities in making his art possible, something that is perhaps related to his early realization that “the most exciting things in life would be found through people I know.” However, just as for Blake—one of his biggest influences—it may have been possible to glimpse the world in a grain of sand, while Alasdair Gray’s work may be firmly grounded in the Glasgow of the second half of the twentieth century, its subject matter extends far beyond, at times touching on the eternal. Where do we come from, what are we and where are we going, he asks us on the roof of Oran Mor, returning to the series of primordial questions that inspired the nineteenth century master Gaugin, questions which Gray describes as “the origin of every art, science and religion.”
There are other images though, such as those completed during his tenure as City Recorder at Glasgow’s People’s Palace, whose concerns lie much closer to home. They are illustrative of Gray’s relationship to the complex processes of social change taking place in the second half of the twentieth century:
Glasgow in the 1970s was changing in very striking ways. The old industries which had made the city famous were being closed or moved to England or abroad, while the Labour councillors who ruled the city (for reasons any economist can explain) were building multi-storey housing blocks and a constantly expanding motorway system.
The result of these processes, as he later explains, was to be much to the detriment of the social fabric of the city, resulting in “local governments [dispersing] many of the citizens to peripheral housing estates and new Scottish towns” and “the building of motorways through Glasgow that destroyed many of its communities.”
A recurring theme in Gray’s work and the stories that lie behind it, is the importance he invests in such communities. Take for example the image Harry McShane and the Weavers Monument (1977), a record of the memorial stones erected in commemoration of six weavers shot while protesting against a cut in their wages. Throughout the course of the book, Gray repeatedly evokes an era in Glaswegian, and by extension Scottish society, in which shared working class values such as collective attempts at betterment and workers rights inspired an impassioned participation in the political process that was firmly rooted in a belief in the possibility of improving our lives by working together. This belief is clear throughout the book: a belief in the public and society, and of the importance of these in people’s everyday lives.
It is also interesting to consider his often critical views on the Scottish art world: at various points, Gray hints at the Establishment’s reluctance to embrace modern ideas. Take for example, his comments on the work of Pierre Lavalle, or his recollection of the absence of opportunities for a then emerging generation of artists, something that led to the establishment of the artists’ cooperative The Young Glasgow Group. He also expresses his rightful dismay at the shadow cast over the Scottish art world by London, with success south of the border often being a prerequisite for its repetition back home, and overall he is perhaps wont to give the impression that Scottish art has struggled and limped its way through the last century, promising that: “if I stay mentally healthy and live long enough I will write a book explaining why most Scots in the first half of the 20th century stopped noticing they could govern themselves locally and make fine works of modern art.” Yet the book ends on a curiously optimistic note, perhaps largely thanks to his discovery of a new generation of the Scottish art world, including figures such as Lucy McKenzie and Sorcha Dallas, whose enthusiasm and entrepreneurial spirit, together with their interest in Gray’s work, have played a major part in his successes at the turn of the century.
Reaching the final chapter of the book, we find Gray’s career to be in full bloom, and it is hard not to be struck by the energy and scope of the life described. Perhaps most notably however, A life in pictures is permeated throughout by the peculiarly Scottish vision of humanity that characterizes one of our greatest living artists, an artist whose life has been marked by a conviction that runs contrary to the market forces of the times in which he has lived: an unshakable belief that together we are stronger. And this concern remains paramount right through to the closing pages of the book where, with characteristic modesty, the triumph of Gray’s achievements is tempered by an appeal to collective action in order to enhance the lives and conditions of those around us, and by extension, of the world in which we live. The value of personal success is dubious, he reminds us, if we are to leave behind us our fellow women and men.
Gray, A. (2010). A Life in Pictures. Canongate: Edinburgh.