Why Alasdair Gray’s (1934-2019) Weird Visions Cannot Be Canonized

From his dreams of Glasgow to nocturnal self-portraits, there was an edge to the writer and artist: a deep well of strangeness

‘Glasgow is a magnificent city,’ Alasdair Gray observed in his masterpiece Lanark (1981). ‘Why do we hardly ever notice that? […] 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 […] 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.’

By the time of the writer and artist’s death last week at the age of 85, however, the mercurial force of Gray’s formidable will and talent had effected a cultural thaw that has left Glasgow a markedly richer city artistically. Yet, while Gray’s descendants throughout art and literature are many, few make work that closely resembles his: by assigning Glasgow its rightful place in the collective imagination, Gray allowed others to dream their own variations. Such credit would likely have been shrugged off, however, by a figure who regarded himself, with scathing but characteristic modesty, as ‘a fat, spectacled, balding, old Glaswegian pedestrian who has mainly lived by writing and designing books, most of them fiction’.

Alasdair Gray, Lanark, 1981. Courtesy: Canongate 

Glasgow and its environs were present from the outset in Gray’s visual work: from Behind a Mansion in Partick (1959), which carries stylistic echoes of Paul Cézanne’s postimpressionist paintings, to Backgreen & Air-raid Shelter Roof, 11 Findhorn Street (1964), a menacing, mysterious image reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Rear Window (1954). Much of Gray’s work is, of course, intrinsic to the city’s architecture, thanks to his ornate mural designs for the Ubiquitous Chip restaurant, Hillhead subway station and the Òran Mór arts centre. (Tragically, a number of his wall paintings have long since been demolished.) 

Yet, Gray – idiosyncratic, puckish – did not readily fit the role of cultural ambassador that many wished to confer on him. His Glasgow was a place where weird shit happened beneath the surface of soot and washing lines: the growing behemoth underneath the tenements in The Beast in the Pit (1952), for example, or the otherworldly and troubled aspects of Lanark. Even Cowcaddens Streetscape in the Fifties (1964), for all its accuracy in terms of place and time, has an oneiric unreality, filtered as it is through the prism of memory. Many have framed Gray as the Glaswegian William Blake – a figure who had a profound formative influence on the artist – and the comparison is not inaccurate. Both were equally brilliant and wayward: too strange to be fully co-opted and canonized. Both were outsiders, even when embraced. 

Alasdair Gray, unknown date. Courtesy: Canongate 

Gray found his artistic voice, by his own admission, in his failed ‘efforts to unite [Aubrey] Beardsley’s crisp black and white areas with Blake’s mysteriously rich colours’. Other influences abound, absorbed by Gray and translated into his own individual style. There are many teeming millenarian echoes of Hieronymus Bosch, curvaceous traces of mannerism in the features of his figures, and more than a hint of graphic pop art in his nudes. In his apocalyptic Glasgow Triumph of Death (1961), there are elements not just of Pieter Bruegel, as might be expected, but also the ravaged distorted figures of Pablo Picasso, at his most pained, and the collapsing tinderbox expressionist architecture of Ludwig Meidner. His breaking of vanishing points in The City (1951) was an instinctive choice based on the fact he had noticed Jan van Eyck and Leonardo da Vinci occasionally employing this technique in their paintings. Equally, traces of comic-book phantoms might be just as discernible in his work as glimpses of Henri Rousseau’s naïve style (Eden and After, 1966). Yet, there was often a very distinct method to Gray’s madness. As he pointed out: ‘Bosch, Blake and Beardsley had shown that exotic, even nightmare fantasies were also great ways of showing truths.’

Alasdair Gray, Purgatory, 2019. Courtesy: Canongate 

This quality can also be traced in his tender, empathetic portraits, accentuated by the inclusion of children, addresses and dates. Gray had a poet’s eye for the intrinsic values of life and space, for the junctures where they intersect. His subjects are friends and family, many of whom – James Kelman, Tom Leonard, Liz Lochhead – formed the nucleus of Glasgow’s great working-class cultural renaissance, and his eye is sympathetic even when the sitter appears uneasy. Just as Gray and his city bled into one another, so his subjects seem to merge with their environments: the furniture, televisions, bookshelves and background views all serve to externalize the sitters’ minds and souls.

Alasdair Gray, 1982 Janine, 1984. Courtesy: Canongate

In Lanark, Gray observed: ‘Art is the only work open to people who can’t get along with others and still want to be special.’ And there is little doubt as to how special he was. A socialist and civic Scottish nationalist, Gray penned the phrase that has been adopted as an unofficial motto by many in the Scottish Nationalist Party: ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.’ Yet, an outspoken polemicist, Gray remained a singular figure – alienated, ebullient, surreal. He wrote of his self-declared ‘perversities’ and drew unflinching nocturnal self-portraits, at once playful and haunted. There was an edge to Gray, a deep well of strangeness. Establishment endorsements sat uneasily with his fiery impulsive wit or, indeed, his overwhelmingly visionary moments, witnessed in works such as Faust in his Study (1958). His politics were influenced by Blake’s prophetic anarchistic tendencies. ‘Blake’s verses and […] drawings do not amount to a system’, Gray noted, ‘because he thinks all big systems are political or religious traps used by the rich and powerful to manage others.’ Crucially, this perspective grounded Gray’s more esoteric visions: if he was a seer, he was a working-class one; if he was a cultural star, it was as part of a constellation. What unlocked Gray’s work was his bravery to be extraordinarily different, and that impulse, like a gift, outlives him.

Main image: Alasdair Gray's ceiling mural in the Oran Mor in Glasgow, 2004. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons 

Darran Anderson is the author of Imaginary Cities (Influx Press, 2015). He tweets at @Oniropolis.

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