Portrait of a Painter
In Portrait of a Painter, Alasdair Gray is given to generalisation, an acceptable enough thing to do if you wish to premise your story on a broad claim before getting down to the specifics, but potentially an enormous problem if the writer wants to sustain their story on the basis of the generalisation. Some great first lines are based on the broadest of claims. "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way", Anna Karenina opens. Jane Austen insists at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice that "it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." Yet Gray doesn't just open by claiming "the art of painting is in a poor way", he also believes that "the ambitious pictorial talents try for film and television, while decent second-raters (the backbone of the industry) are lost to advertising. "He then goes on to add "Scotland, however, is a notorious low-investment area and pictorially speaking we have never recovered from the depression of the thirties", as he goes on to tell us why Scottish art thrived before then and where the money goes now; if there is money available at all. He talks about the post-war Burrell collection and that the "cost of housing thus and employing a sufficient staff of administrators, conservators and security guards ensures that in the Scottish middle-west little public money will be spent on local painting for the foreseeable future." Here Gray isn't only making broad claims about the past, he is also going on to predict the future as well.
Who is this intolerable narrator we may wonder, and the easy answer would be Gray himself, especially when we think of the kerfuffle he created with generalisations unequivocally of his own in an essay 'Settlers and Colonists'. Here he discussed Scottish creative bodies and how often the top jobs would go to English administrators, which he didn't have such a problem with if it meant that those in powerful positions were also involved in living in the country. The gist of it was that Gray didn't think it was a good idea to have so many positions held by people from elsewhere who weren't invested more generally and more long-term in Scottish art. Speaking of the debate that promptly grew around his essay, Gray said "I do include in the essay that I thoroughly approve of settlers but I might regret colonists. I was using the words with great care, I am a professional writer you see, and I explain in the essay why I used them. I think any kind of writer who was afraid of saying something that they believe, because it would cause annoyance, would be very silly." ('The Settlers and Colonists' Affair')
Yet an important element of Gray's work is tone, and whether discussing painting in a fictional piece or the Scottish art scene in an essay, Gray's generalisations are usually provocative rather than assertive, quizzical and humorous rather than categorical and dry. When in Portrait of a Painter, the narrator says "it is not flippant to couple the health of a nation's art with the health of its bigger industries", he wants to draw links between a nation's financial health and artistic health that has no place for flow charts and statistics as he later says "nobody has more respect than the Scots for what can be measured by weight, volume or cash, but in softer moods we prefer to believe in the superior values of love, friendship, home, the church, a football team, the Orange Order and (if educated to it) Art."
As Gray continues generalising there is hardly a particular in sight, as though the story will never land on a given experience that can pass for the fictional. But land it does, and on fact, with Gray talking about the actual artist Alasdair Taylor, who was born in Ross-shire in the mid-thirties, and whose father was a station master. Yet that Taylor is an actual person isn't any the less moving and engaging as a result. Gray says that Taylor married the Danish Annelise and that "she has prevented the usual despair and become the foundation of his art. One strong person who loves and supports your talent can outweigh a society which does not give a damn for you." Gray adds that Taylor "worked with oils, brushes and spray paint", he says too that these cans "are a popular medium with amateur muralists in the poorer parts of Glasgow, but they cost nearly a pound each." Here he manages to make broad claims about the youth who would offer Graffiti and make clear that this isn't work done on the cheap. He also insists that art costs money as much as it makes it, and if few "give a damn for you" producing work isn't a way of earning a living but instead costs you a small fortune. It also means you need other jobs to survive and Gray's point throughout is that art-making is a profession like any other, and not everyone who paints is inclined towards becoming an art teacher. "Now, while it is possible for a good painter to teach (Klee, Kandinsky and Cowie did it) there occur, even in Scotland, painters who are unable to be anything else..." Taylor was one such artist. Taylor "taught art for three days in a Dumbarton school then handed in his notice and got work as a midden man with Glasgow Cleansing department..."
Taylor was a friend of Gray's and Gray uses his pal as an opportunity to speak about the Scottish art scene pragmatically, to concern himself not with the intricacies of the art form but the practicalities of a life, and hence the title, 'Portrait of a Painter'. The irony is that the portrait isn't an image of one moment in Taylor's life as an artist would be obliged to produce, and that even Cubism couldn't quite escape, but a frequentative tale covering many years in an existence and that literature is especially well equipped to delineate, even if for many, literature is at its best when mimetic rather than diegetic: when it shows rather than tells. Whether the diegetic makes for good art is questionable but Gray might say instead it is debatable that it ought to be up for discussion. Just as we expect the writer who generalises to alight on an example and run with the story he starts to tell, so we often expect a story to be contained and compact, consistent with Aristotelian rules of construction that emphasise unity of time and space. Gray would probably facetiously reply that it isn''t his fault that the unity of time and space was fractured not least by Taylor's attempt to make a living, and after living in Glasgow he moved to Hunterston where the landowners wanted someone to keep an eye on fields that were hidden by a cliff, and thus the cottage rent was only a few shillings a week.
Gray of course wasn't only one of Scotland's major modern writers, he was an artist as well, someone who designed murals at Oran Mor and The Ubiquitous Chip and numerous other venues. There is nothing representing unity of time and space more than a mural that tells a story within one image, but why should literature suffer temporal constraints when it is a temporal form and not a spatial one? Literature needn't inevitably limit time, and the diegetic rather than the mimetic can be a very good way of covering decades quickly if a writer feels the need. What Grey offers is a story that is a portrait in literary form, an examination of a life. The generalisations allow him to contextualise a little-known painter within a particular social frame, and helps explain why he may have been little known, which had less to do with Taylor's talent than with socio-economic circumstances, evident in Gray's insistence that "from 1880 to 1925 Scotland supported a large population of full-time professional painters, the bulk of them living in the west." It was thus no "coincidence that the Glasgow School of Painting throve when Glasgow was the second biggest city in Britain and the main supplier of the world's shipping", and no surprise either that many painters would struggle when economic conditions deteriorated. In 'The Settlers and Colonists' essay, Gray quotes F Scott Fitzgerald's well-known claim: "Start with an individual and you may end up with a type. Start with a type and you may end up with ... nothing." Gray here starts with a type as he muses over the artistic life generally, and arrives at an individual, someone who has been ignored by the art establishment, with the story in some ways a precursor to his controversial essay. "The adminstrators are usually strangers to the cities where they work and are often English...the administrators honestly wish to show the best in modern art, including local Scottish art, but how do they know what it is?" Gray, in his small way, in offering a portrait of his friend Alasdair Taylor, suggests somewhere they could have looked.
© Tony McKibbin