Art review: Alasdair Gray: Omnium Gatherum, Glasgow Print Studio

The fire of Alasdair Gray’s volcanic creativity never burnt low – it blazed on till the end, as this memorial show at Glasgow Print Studio demonstrates

If you look for William Blake in the library, you will find him split between the competing territories of art and literature. He was an artist but the literature professionals have grabbed a big slice because he wrote poetry. For poor Blake this dismemberment would have made no sense. The same is surely true of Alasdair Gray who died at the very end of last year. He was an artist, but pursuing his art led him to write. Art and writing for him were not separate territories, as it serves the careers of the academics to have us believe. In his work they are indivisible.

Alasdair Gray was still working at Glasgow Print Studio in December, only days before he died. He had had a creative connection with the studio ever since its foundation and was preparing a print, sadly now unfinished, for what was planned as a show mostly of recent work, but has now become a memorial exhibition. Happening this way, it doesn’t really have the retrospective character of a conventional memorial exhibition, but then Gray was never remotely conventional. He would, I think, have been rather pleased that the balance towards recent work gives a sense that the fire of his volcanic creativity never burnt low. It blazed on till the end.

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Talk of Blake is apposite too. In A Life in Pictures, the book which he states emphatically is the story of his art, not his life, Gray cites Blake as one of his earliest inspirations. Throughout his career, especially in the way that he unites text and image, he remained a model. Blake has had many imitators, but very few learnt from him as Gray did, then matched the grandeur of his vision with a vision of his own.

The texts are not exclusively his. Ozymandias illustrates Shelley, for instance, “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone/Stand in the desert, etc.” Nevertheless, the vast majority are a visual and literary compound of his own poetic images and ideas; and of course he was recognised as a major prose writer even more than as a poet. They often reveal a soaring, apocalyptic, Blake-like vision of the human condition as in Prometheus: A Fragment, for instance. In Omnium Gatherum, a print made for the independence referendum, “Law” is on one side and “Love” on the other and Gray sees and states emphatically the opposition between Nature, Love and Freedom on the one hand and God, Law and Force on the other. Here too he parallels but does not depend on Blake. Throughout his work this opposition informs his passionate belief in Scottish independence. A brilliantly economical poster opposes Yes to the No of the hungry beast of corporate greed.

In a lighter mode, his comic series The Scottish Hippo contrasts the Scottish way of life – like the hippo, happy in its mucky existence – with the aspirations of the Kirk, wonderfully personified as a prim, self-satisfied lady. But it is the hippo that triumphs in the end. It rises to heaven, “Free o’all stain, amang his ain, each martyred Virgin is his jo. / The Auld Kirk in the auld mirk, foozles below.” With a sly smile, God looks on. But Gray also created poetic images of an exquisite tenderness, as in the lovely That Death Will Break the Salt-Fresh Cockle Hand, in which a girl is seated, holding out her hand indicating the poem below with sea shells scattered round it; or the lovely and elegiac We Will All Go Down into The Streets of Water, in which a man and woman stand naked in a stream. A poem contemplating mortality and addressed to Carole is inscribed beside them.

Throughout, Gray’s art depends on sinuous drawing with unbroken lines against broad flat areas, whether of back, white or colour. When these are black, a link with Aubrey Beardsley, another early hero, is clear. He certainly appreciated Beardsley’s erotic perversity, but his influence is mostly a matter of design, lines that sweep across the composition, binding it together. His prints – and this is a show exclusively of prints – follow his drawings precisely, often photographically, and there is nothing fuzzy, no aquatint or scumbled colour. Everything is clear and bright, or at least it looks that way for all the frequent darkness beneath. Blake, too, was passionate about line. It was the vehicle of the artist’s imagination, the gift that finds order in chaos: “Nature has no outline,” he wrote, “Imagination has.”

The third early influence that Gray cites is a fiction, Gulley Jimson, the artist in Joyce Cary’s novel The Horse’s Mouth. Cary studied art in Edinburgh, so in a way the novel really was from the horse’s mouth. Jimson lives a chaotic and disreputable life obsessed with finding opportunities to paint on a big scale. An exhibition of Gray’s prints cannot touch on that side of his art, but his not-an-autobiography is full of his search for opportunities to paint big. There is one sadly ironic parallel with Jimson too. When he did find an opportunity to paint in the Greenhead Church, Bridgeton, it was then knocked down. That too was the fate of Jimson’s final masterpiece. Cary’s Jimson was inspired by Blake who also had dreams of painting on a monumental scale. And if a show like this cannot touch on Gray’s large-scale painting, like Blake’s big pictures in small, the plates Gray made for his dystopian novel Lanark, though small imply scale. For all its rich phantasmagoria, Lanark is informed throughout by the difficulty of learning to be an artist in the 1950s. It was a hard time. The problem of sex in a deeply repressive decade is a constant in the book. So, though unspoken, is the angst of a time overshadowed by the threat of annihilation in nuclear war. After the Cuban Missile Crisis the 60s jumped for joy. The 50s were a time, too, when artists seemed to have no future beyond the grind of the schoolroom.

All this pessimism informs Lanark and is echoed in the plates which were always integral to the book. Here they are displayed in two versions, the black and white originals made in the late 1960s and a coloured set made six years ago. Apart from the colour in the second version, the most obvious change is that the books are numbered one to four, though there are also other variations. The first set were apparently meant to be coloured, but maybe it was the example of Dürer’s great woodcuts in black and white that persuaded the artist against it. Certainly Dürer is an inspiration, sometimes directly – as in the spectacular plate to the second book, a gruesome anatomy lesson drawn with the wiry, wriggling line of a 16th-century woodcut – but overall, too, in their design as a grand set of rich and complex prints.

These are all vast images on a small scale. In the plate to the fourth book, for instance, a tyrannical giant looms over a panoramic landscape of Scotland. What looks like chain-mail armour is actually a myriad of tiny figures. This giant is identified explicitly in the second version as that “great mechanical man called a state, foremost of the beasts of the earth for pride.” (This was certainly Anarchist, not Tory anti-statism.) This armoured giant wields Force in one hand and Persuasion in the other. Beneath are armies, factories and war. Few could manage so grand a vision in so small a compass. Alasdair Gray will be sorely missed, but not quickly forgotten.

Until 12 April