To enter into Alasdair Gray’s world is to enter a wonderland of imagination that bursts off the page, canvas and stage to offer possibilities of other ways of living rooted in the big, messy bloom of humanity. Gray’s passing aged 85 is the loss of an artistic titan, whose breadth of vision in word, brush and thought helped reimagine infinity for the city of Glasgow and its people that became his canvas, his story-board and his dream-scape.
You could get a glimpse of that world stepping into Gray’s home in the west end of the city, where paintings of his literary and artistic contemporaries and of those close to him down the decades lined his front room. The acquired clutter suggested a life that was an endless work in progress, its expansive Blakeian shades reaching out for the stars, the universe and beyond.
I fleetingly witnessed this first-hand when I visited Gray to interview him and artist Siobhan Healy about their forthcoming exhibition, Biodiversity: A Cabinet of Curiosities, which they were working on for the 2018 Edinburgh Art Festival. Gray was painstakingly painting the texts for the show when I arrived. He was in a wheelchair by then following a fall a few years earlier, but spoke as passionately and as forensically about the Patrick Geddes inspired show as he did a decade or so before when I’d visited. That was to interview him about a play he had going on as part of Oran Mor’s A Play, a Pie and a Pint lunchtime theatre season.
The word ‘interview’ doesn’t really do the experience justice. An audience with Gray was to tune in to an ebullient stream of conscious that would back-flip between tangents of classical literature, art and world affairs, often in the same sentence as his voice rose in volume before punctuating things with shrieks of laughter. The presence of Gray’s now late wife Morag McAlpine sitting quietly reading the paper the whole time made the meeting even more disarming. Each discursive, mind-boggling ramble by Gray took several by-roads to get to every brilliant point, but like the great polymath’s multi-faceted means of expression, it all connected up.
For those who came to Lanark, Unlikely Stories Mostly, The Fall of Kelvin Walker and Gray’s other books at a formative age, that inquisitiveness was rewarded with mind-expanding largesse that was rooted in the classics but looked squarely towards unchartered futures. The drawings, typography and footnotes that peppered the pages took the reader somewhere else again. This wasn’t just literature. This was a portal into a new way of thinking and a new way of being that the Gray-penned storyboard for a projected film of Lanark, serialised like a cartoon strip in Scottish Book Collector magazine throughout the 1980s, could only hint at.
For those who walk past Gray’s mural on Hillhead Underground every day, or stare up at the ceiling of Oran Mor on the corner of Byres Road and Great Western Road, it is the same. Gray’s work may be rooted in the everyday to the extent that its public presence might be taken for granted by those in a hurry. But stop a moment in the midst of your commute or your Friday night pint to look up and breathe in an alchemist’s brew of craftsmanship and metaphysics, and something bigger than all of us peers back. Each painting maps out all the heroic struggles of life contained in a huge body of work that is both deeply political and deeply spiritual.
The all-encompassing power of Gray’s canon could be gleaned a few years back from the tellingly named Spheres of Influence twin exhibitions that ran in tandem at Glasgow School of Art and the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow. These were lovingly curated by Sorcha Dallas Gray, a key figure in keeping Gray’s visual flame in view, and unfurled a cross-generational array of classical and contemporary artists bridged by Gray’s mighty reach.
It’s there too in Gray’s stage works, in both original plays and adaptations of novels. Lanark has been staged twice so far, both times at Edinburgh International Festival, with the most recent in 2015 again bringing together a plethora of talents sired whether consciously or otherwise by Gray’s towering presence.
As a latter-day renaissance man and everyday genius, Gray is untouchable. To have had him on our doorstep has been something to cherish. Looking at the proud but bewildered face of the shy, tank-topped young artist in Oscar Marzaroli’s portrait of Gray in the 1950s showing as part of the current exhibition of Marzaroli’s work at Street Level is to get a glimpse of a reluctant visionary in waiting. Who would have guessed the torrent of wisdom and experience that would burst forth to enrich the soul beyond?
The List, December 2019