Belated honour for George Wyllie as sculptor hits 90

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THE work of celebrated artist George Wyllie is to be exhibited in the National Galleries of Scotland for the first time, it was confirmed yesterday.

The sculptor has won critical and popular acclaim over the years for his iconic works such as Paper Boat and Straw Locomotive, but the NGS has never held one of his pieces in its collections.

Discussions are under way to strike a loan deal withthe Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, with supporters of Wyllie hoping the NGS may even purchase one of his works. The announcement, made on the Inverclyde-based artist’s 90th birthday, comes as a year-long celebration of Wyllie’s life and work gets under way.

The Whysman Festival, supported by the likes of the actors Sir Sean Connery and Alan Cumming, will include a retrospective exhibition of his work at Glasgow’s Mitchell Library in November.

John Leighton, director general of the NGS, and Simon Groom, director of modern and contemporary art, have begun talks with the Friends of George Wyllie, a group set up by the artist’s daughters to secure his legacy.

A spokesman for the Friends explained: “We had a good meeting with the directors about George generally and getting work into the collection, and they were very supportive. They are now looking at George’s pieces, having a loan and seeing what works, and, in the longer term, making a purchase of a piece.”

An NGS spokeswoman added: “I can confirm the NGS have had discussions with the Friends of George Wyllie. The idea of a loan of his work to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art has been discussed and this is a possibility that we will look into further in the course of 2012.”

Born in the Shettleston area of Glasgow, Wyllie has said he was “disadvantaged by a happy childhood”. He served in the Royal Navy, his service ending with a visit to Hiroshima two months after the H-Bomb was dropped in 1945.

A playwright and writer, he achieved worldwide renown as a sculptor, in particular for Paper Boat, which was seen by millions as it went on a journey from Glasgow to Liverpool, London and New York. When it sailed into the last city, a photograph of the artwork made the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

As well as the exhibition at the Mitchell Library, a host of Wyllie’s famous fans have pledged to take part in the year-long celebration of his career.

Film-maker Murray Grigor hailed Wyllie as “one of the most popular yet officially misunderstood artists in Scotland” and has released a new DVD of his award-winning 1990 film for Channel 4, The Why?sMan, starring Bill Paterson.

Sir Sean, who first met Wyllie in the 1970s, said: “George Wyllie welds the humour of Chic Murray into artworks which are at once surreal and wry reflections on our loss of engineering innovation, which once made the west of Scotland the workshop of the world.”

Cumming, the film, television, and stage actor, also paid tribute to Wyllie, recalling how he first encountered his striking art. “I have admired George’s work since 1987 when he stunned Glasgow with a straw locomotive hanging from the Finnieston Crane. It was an act of whimsy, bravado, and passion that connected on an emotional level with the Scottish people. It changed my view of what art could be.”

Wyllie, from Gourock, was made an MBE in 2005. He now lives in a care home in Greenock, and much of his work is in storage. As part of his birthday celebrations, Wyllie’s family paid homage to his artistic mantra – which seeks to question everything – in the form of a question-mark shaped cake.

His daughter, Louise, said her father was “pleased to think his work will be reaching out to people again. There’s a generation of young people who don’t know about my father’s work – we want to change that.”