Glasgow boys

 

© Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

 

The loose confederation of late 19th century artists known as the Glasgow Boys was just one aspect of Glaswegian culture that didn’t get a look-in when Scotland’s largest city was made European City of Culture for 1990.

 

Writing about the event 22 years later in his controversial essay Settlers and Colonists (2012), the Glaswegian writer and artist Alasdair Gray castigated the city’s councillors and their City of Culture managers for ignoring the Glasgow Boys and for also ignoring local theatrical writers, producers and performers like Archie Hind, Peter McDougall, John Byrne, David Hayman and Billy Connolly:  “…these transient administrators knew or cared nothing for these local achievements and were employed by equally ignorant or careless town councillors.  To both sorts the city’s past was mainly rumours of gang violence and radical Socialism, both of which should be forgotten.  New Labour wanted the City of Culture to attract foreign tourists and investors, so performances and shows were brought from outside Scotland.  Hardly anything Glaswegian was presented in Glasgow’s Year of Culture.”

 

Shortly before Gray penned Settlers and Colonists, the Glasgow Boys at least received a permanent showcase in the city where their circle had come into being.  In 2011, a permanent room dedicated to them and displaying more than 60 of their paintings was established at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.  This came in the wake of a hugely successful exhibition called Pioneering Painters: The Glasgow Boys 1880-1900 held at Kelvingrove and at London’s Royal Academy in 2010, which, incidentally, was the first exhibition devoted to them for more than 40 years.

 

According to a BBC news article written in 2011, the Glasgow Boys consisted of 23 artists, although their Wikipedia entry lists only 22 names.  (Who was that unlucky, unnamed 23rd Glasgow Boy, I wonder?)  In their paintings, they were motivated by a desire for realism and naturalism, for depicting what they really saw in the world around them – being stylised in terms of lighting, colour and symbolism if necessary, but without being formulaic.  This put them at loggerheads with the Scottish art establishment of the time, centred around Glasgow’s age-old rival, Edinburgh.  At the same time, their influences extended far beyond Scotland’s borders.  These included the Dutch impressionists, French realists and the general late 19th-century fad for all things Oriental.

 

At the end of last year, I got a chance to explore the Glasgow Boys Gallery at Kelvingrove.  Here are what I thought were its highlights.

 

Sir William Guthrie painted Old Willie – The Village Worthy (1886) featured at the top of this entry.  This practically acts as a manifesto for the Glasgow Boys, for instead of creating a flattering portraiture of somebody against a lush, comfortable background, Guthrie simply paints an old fellow in his everyday clothes against a common whitewashed wall and makes no effort to disguise or soften the weather-beaten aspect of his features.  Guthrie was also responsible for A Highland Funeral.  Depicting a group of black-clad mourners gathered around the doorway of the deceased, it’s about as bleak and Calvinistic a work as you can find in Scottish art.  Born in Greenock, Guthrie was the son of an evangelical church minister, so he probably knew this world well.

 

© Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

 

William Kennedy led a geographically varied life, spending time in the Scottish towns of Paisley and Stirling, in Paris, in Berkshire in England, and finally in Tangier.  Whilst living in Stirling he painted Stirling Station (1887-88), capturing the place in a dreamy purple twilight (which probably doesn’t come out very well in the illustration I’ve provided below).

 

© Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

 

Moving to more exotic subjects, George Henry’s Japanese Lady with a Fan (1894) is one of many works by this Ayrshire-born painter to have a Japanese theme.  Indeed, Henry and his friend and fellow Glasgow Boy Edward Atkinson (E.A.) Hornel spent a year-and-a-half in Japan in the early 1890s.

 

© Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

 

Also in Kelvingrove is the mystical painting The Druids – Bringing in the Mistletoe (1890), which I’ve seen attributed to George Henry with Hornel cited as an influence, but also seen described as a collaboration between Henry and Hornel.  If memory serves me correctly, this wasn’t actually on display in the Glasgow Boys Gallery when I was there.  Rather, it’d been squirrelled down to the basement where there was a temporary exhibition in progress, Alphonse Mucha – In Quest of Beauty.  The exhibition not only covered Mucha’s work but also looked at that of his contemporaries and possible influences, and I suppose there is something Mucha-esque about The Druids, in its content if not so much in its execution.

 

© Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

 

Born in Australia but brought up in Kirkcudbright, E.A. Hornel himself is the painter of the decorous and languid The Coming of Spring (1899).

 

© Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

 

I have to say The Coming of Spring is a contrast to another Hornel painting on display, The Brownie of Blednoch (1889), which was inspired by a poem written by William Nicholson in 1825.  The brownie of the title is a fearsome thing with grey-brown skin, Spock ears, a black, crooked mouth like one on an unlit Halloween lantern, eyes that resemble poached eggs and a beard that’s as long, swirling and tentacled as an octopus. But the sheep in the rocky landscape behind it seem strangely untroubled by its presence.

 

© Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

 

Mucha ado about something

 

From muchafoundation.org

 

I greatly admire the work of the late-19th-century / early-20th-century Czech painter, illustrator and designer Alphonse Mucha.  Happily, a visit I made a few weeks ago to Glasgow coincided with an exhibition held at the city’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum that was dedicated to him and entitled Alponse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty.

 

This wasn’t the first time I’d seen Mucha’s paintings displayed en masse.  Back in 1990, I was wandering about the southern Japanese city of Hiroshima when I stumbled across a gallery that was hosting a major exhibition of his work.  This was my first exposure to his oeuvre and I fell in love with it immediately.  I even spent a small fortune on the lavish artbook on sale as an accompaniment to the exhibition.  Its text was entirely in Japanese, which I couldn’t read, but I just wanted to drool over its many colour reproductions of Mucha’s pictures.

 

From muchafoundation.org

 

At the time I was working in a high school in Hokkaido at the other end of the Japanese archipelago and when I returned to my workplace one of the first things I did was lend the book to a colleague there, the school’s art teacher, Artist Hirosawa.  (As a teacher, his title was Hirosawa Sensei, which translates as plain old ‘Mr Hirosawa’; but the first thing he’d ever said to me was, in English, “Hello, I am Artist Hirosawa.”  So ‘Artist Hirosawa’ was how I always thought of him.)  The sight of Artist Hirosawa sitting with the book open on his staffroom desk for days afterwards, drooling over those colour reproductions too, suggested that they liked Mucha an awful lot in Japan.

 

A decade later, I had a chance to spend a short holiday in Prague and a place I immediately made a beeline for was the Kaunický Palác, which contains the Mucha Museum – dedicated, as its name indicates, to Prague’s most famous artistic son.  (Mucha actually spent much of his life in the Moravian towns of Ivančice and Brno, and in Vienna, Paris and the United States.  But Prague was his home during his last three decades.)  Predictably, I went away laden with more Mucha memorabilia courtesy of the museum’s giftshop: postcards, prints, bookmarks, calendars.

 

What is it about Mucha’s artwork that so appeals to me?  Well, everything, I guess: the nymph-like, neo-classical figures, the flowing gowns, the cascades of pre-Raphaelite hair; the curves, haloes and patterns; the flowers; the exquisite use of pastel colours (even though pastel colours are usually something I don’t much like).  I love that whole, languid Art Noveau dreaminess that suffuses his work, even if it suggests an era desperate for escapism – because while Mucha was putting together his gorgeous compositions, life for much of the urban population of industrialised 19th-century Europe was anything but gorgeous.  Against a backdrop of William Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills’ belching out smoke and clanging with thunderous noise, it was frequently filthy, muddy, crowded, brutal and squalid.

 

From muchafoundation.org

 

One aspect of Mucha that I particularly like – though I’ve read this was something he himself was unhappy about – was the fact that he was a commercial artist.  He made his name in Paris designing lithographed posters for plays featuring the celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt.  He produced posters, advertisements, book illustrations and designs for wallpaper, carpets and jewellery.  Mucha seemed to win fame and acclaim because of, rather than in spite of, his willingness (if not his desire) to work in everyday media and have his art mass-produced for mass consumption.

 

Mind you, with his advertising work, you wonder if people admiring its aesthetics ever managed to notice its products as well.  One advert on display at the Glasgow exhibition, for bicycles (‘Cycles Perfecta’), does indeed feature a bicycle.  But inevitably it also features a nymph, who all but hides the bicycle – it nearly disappears amid her tresses of hair, her ribbons and the folds of her dress.

 

From muchafoundation.org

 

I find it interesting too that Mucha was a committed Freemason.  In 1898 he joined a Masonic lodge in Paris and after he’d settled in Prague he established the first-ever Czech-speaking lodge.  He gained the titles of Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Czechoslovakia and later Sovereign Grand Master of the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite in Czechoslovakia.  I’m not a fan of Freemasonry itself but its symbolism fascinates me and I appreciate much of the craftsmanship and architecture it’s produced.  (If you’ve ever explored, say, the Freemasons’ Hall on Great Queen Street in London, you’ll agree that Masonic art is impressive.)

 

It’s always good to see a collection of his work together, but Kelvingrove’s Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty suffers slightly from lack of context.  I’d have liked more information about the items on display, explaining how and when they fitted into Mucha’s development and preoccupations as an artist.  Sneakily, the exhibition also incorporates ‘British influences and Scottish contemporaries’ – the latter consisting of “the radical, highly symbolic work of ‘The Four’: Charles Rennie Mackintosh, James Herbert McNair and Margaret and Frances Macdonald.  Exhibited and published internationally, their early work was distinctly bold compared to Mucha’s curvaceous designs.”  This allows the exhibition-organisers to slip in a couple of non-Mucha works as well, including Rennie Mackintosh’s famous Scottish Musical Review.  Again, I’d have liked a little more context for their insertion.

 

The Mucha biography displayed at the exhibition reminds you that he came to a sad end.  After the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939, the Gestapo hauled him in for questioning.  His Slav nationalism, epitomised in his 20-painting masterpiece The Slav Epic (1910-1928), didn’t endear him to the Nazis.  Neither did his local prominence in the Freemasons, whom the Nazis regarded as part of the great Jewish conspiracy and had banned in Germany in 1934.  During his interrogation, Mucha developed pneumonia and, shortly after his release, died of a lung infection.  Yes, his work was gloriously escapist; but he came off worst when he encountered the reality of the 20th century, reality in its cruellest and most pitiless form.

 

From en.wikipedia.org

 

The Dear Green Place

 

 

During the five years I’ve produced this blog, I’ve made little mention of the city of Glasgow.  Indeed, I don’t think I’ve written about Glasgow at all.

 

Nothing against the Dear Green Place, which is the meaning of the Gaelic version of its name, Gleas chu.  (The Dear Green Place was also the title of a 1966 novel by Archie Hind, one of the finest works of Glaswegian literature ever.)  I just haven’t been there lately.  Come to think of it, I’ve only made four brief visits to Glasgow in the 21st century, three of them to attend concerts and the fourth to pick up a new passport at the Passport Office on Milton Street.

 

However, on December 30th and 31st, 2016, my partner and I got an opportunity to spend a day-and-a-half in the city.  Here’s what we did there.

 

Just before noon on the 30th we got off a train in Queen Street Station and, not wanting to waste time, went out of its southern exit, down the side of George Square and into the Gallery of Modern Art.  The gallery was hosting three exhibitions at the time, though only one made much impression on us – a display about the work of the eclectic Scottish filmmaker John Samson, responsible for documentaries “covering topics such as tattooing, amateur railway enthusiasm, clothing fetishism, professional darts and the sex lives of disabled people.”

 

But the building is handsome, especially the lobby and the spaces above it.  Oval-shaped openings with ornate balustrades on each floor allow you to look all the way up from the lobby to a gorgeous glass dome with a spider’s-web pattern of panes in the roof.

 

 

Maybe the most famous work of art at the gallery is the statue on a plinth outside its entrance, of the Duke of Wellington on horseback.  What makes the statue iconic is how the old warrior’s head has, for many years, disappeared into the interior of a Glaswegian traffic cone, perched on top of him like a dunce’s cap.  Any attempts by the city council to remove the thing have prompted an outcry – the common argument being that the statue and cone constitute a Glaswegian landmark and symbolise the city’s healthy disrespect for authority.

 

In the early afternoon we checked into our hotel at Pacific Quay on the River Clyde.  Once the site of the commercial docks Plantation Quay and Princes’ Dock Basin, Pacific Quay is now a redeveloped area serving as (to quote its website) “Scotland’s most important location for broadcasting, media, digital and creative industries.”  Its attractions include the headquarters of BBC Scotland, housed in a six-storey glass box; the Glasgow Science Centre, whose building is a truncated hemisphere with a slanted-back glass façade; the Clyde Arc bridge, whose most prominent feature is a big steel hoop above its main span; the SSEC Hydro, a concert and conference arena shaped like a giant bucket; and another concert and conference venue, the Clyde Auditorium, whose segmented shell has earned it the nickname of ‘the Armadillo’, though looking at it across the river from our hotel-room I thought it looked more like a giant woodlouse.

 

 

One relic from the old days is the hulking Finnieston Crane, which loaded and unloaded ships from 1932 to 1969.  Rather sadly, it’s marked on Google Maps with a little medieval-tower symbol that denotes a ‘historical monument’.

 

Despite there being crowds of kids hanging out around the SSEC Hydro and Clyde Auditorium, most of the quay felt oddly bleak and empty – like a post-industrial ghost town.  Perhaps it was because of the grim end-of-year weather.  A vaporous ash-grey sky seemed to press down upon the tops of those architectural boxes, hemispheres, hoops, buckets and shells and it drained the scene of life and colour.

 

In the mid-afternoon, we walked north from the quay to Kelvingrove Park and then to Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.  In contrast to Pacific Quay – a study in grey – the park seemed on this wintry day to have been coloured with a palette containing nothing but shades of brown.  It was populated with brown leafless trees and littered with fallen brown leaves.  Even the gothic Glasgow University Tower that rose above the park’s far edge looked like an extension of its brown foliage.

 

 

The gallery was hosting an exhibition by Alphonse Mucha, about which I’ll write in detail in the near-future.  Meanwhile, part of its foyer floor was devoted to the Glasgow Boys, the two-dozen-or-so artists who in the late 19th and early 20th centuries pioneered the celebrated Glasgow Style of painting – about whom I’ll also write more in future.  By the time we’d viewed Mucha and the Glasgow Boys, the building was ready to close, which meant there were still many parts of it we hadn’t seen.  Which means we’ll need to make a return visit someday.

 

 

Incidentally, I appreciated the fifty or so disembodied heads hanging above the foyer.  Devised by Sophy Cave in 2005, these heads are bald and albino and variously yawn, smirk, grimace and gurn.  They’re simultaneously funny and creepy.

 

 

After stopping off at a branch of the craft-beer pub-chain BrewDog opposite the gallery – which, pleasantly, seemed to cater for a range of ages, including grumpy old farts like myself, and not just the loud young hipsters who often seem to fill BrewDog pubs elsewhere – we headed back to the city centre.  There, we ate at an Italian restaurant on Hope Street and then retired to a rock-music-themed pub further up the street called Rufus T. Firefly.  It happened to be showing Joe Dante’s anarchic Christmas movie Gremlins (1984) on a big screen – yay!

 

The following morning, my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, resolved to do some shopping in the Argyle Street branch of Next.  I left her to it and took a wander around Buchanan Street.  The first time I ever visited Glasgow, I was with my family, I was eight years old, we lived in Northern Ireland and we were over in Scotland on a holiday.  I was a big fan of Jon Pertwee-era Doctor Who and one of my main memories of that visit was spotting what looked like the Doctor’s Tardis, i.e. an old blue police box, standing on the corner of Buchanan Street and Gordon Street.  More than 40 years later I discovered that the thing is still there, though the sign at the top now says HOTDOGS instead of POLICE.  I wonder if the current Doctor, the Glaswegian actor Peter Capaldi, goes to that corner whenever he’s back in town and plays jokes on passers-by by leaping out from behind the police box and accosting them in character.

 

 

Later in the morning, we walked to Glasgow Cathedral, which is nearly nine centuries old and is a rare example of a Scottish medieval church that survived the Reformation wholly intact.  The hill behind the cathedral is home to the city’s famous Necropolis and bristles with stone crosses, columns, plinths, sepulchres and stelae, but we didn’t have enough time to explore it and besides, the weather was turning wet and wintry again.  Instead, we contented ourselves with looking around inside the cathedral itself.  And again, this may be the basis of a future blog-entry.

 

 

That was all we had time for, save for lunchtime drinks in the Horseshoe Bar on Drury Street, famous for its 104-foot bar-counter that’s supposed to be the longest in the UK – although since it’s an island bar rather than one than runs in a straight line, you may not notice its great length.

 

And so ended my first substantial visit to Glasgow in many years.  My verdict?  There’s plenty to see and do, the people are hospitable, much of the city is handsome and it won’t be long before I’m back.  Though I hope next time the Dear Green Place really is green, as opposed to grey or brown.