'Alasdair Gray, Dowanside, Glasgow 1985' Credit Alan Dimmick via Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en

Review: Alasdair Gray’s Lanark: A World Made On Paper @ The Hunterian

By Finn Macdonald

Finn reflects back on the Hunterian’s exhibition, celebrating 40 years since the publication of Alasadair Gray’s Lanark.

**This exhibition is no longer open to the public**

Alasdair Gray’s Lanark: A Life in Four Books is a novel built out of parts that ought not to fit together. It is an autobiography embedded inside a fantasy. It tells its middle first, then its start, and then its end. It features artwork as part of its story and poems as part of its art. It is a vast, churning, philosophical machine, a world made for getting lost in. The Hunterian’s exhibition, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark: A World Made On Paper, gives just a few of the novel’s many moving parts their deserved space to breathe. 

Marking the 40th Anniversary of Lanark’s publication, the exhibition presents an array of Gray’s distinctive artwork in combination with original manuscripts and artwork from the process of Lanark’s creation. The showcase is brief, across only two rooms, but this allows the elaborate detail of each exhibit equal attention and space. There is no getting lost here: accessible, comprehensive summaries tell the stories of Gray’s life and of Lanark’s writing, while ‘an interactive multimedia exhibition’ designed by the Alasdair Gray Archive, Beyond the Horizon, offers uninitiated visitors a fun run-through of Lanark’s labyrinthine plot.

The exhibition explores the art and the artist pretty evenly: much like Lanark as a text, one half is devoted to fiction and the other to reality. The first room focuses on the novel, displaying drafts of title pages, fragments of handwritten prose, and jagged sketches of characters’ faces. The exhibits are almost all examples of Gray writing over the real world, using double-entry documents, exercise books, and lists of upcoming jobs as the papers on which to draft his work. There’s something particularly captivating about seeing a tiny scrawled date, ‘15 May 1973’, in the corner of one such page.

Reality takes priority in the second room, as details of Gray’s life are offered, and his depictions of domestic scenes, from family portraits to a painting of Edwin Morgan eclipsing a Glasgow skyline, are displayed. A short biography printed on the wall emphasises Gray’s “deeply personal engagement with place”, a fact evident in all of the work exhibited. A painter, writer, and playwright, Gray lived almost all of his life in Glasgow, twice taking on the role of writer-in-residence at the University. Lanark is a story soaked in Scottishness, set half in Glasgow and half in a hellish reinvention of the city named Unthank; the Finnieston Crane and the University building’s spire lurk in the corners of his painted scenes. 

He is the essential Glasgow artist, perhaps our most loved ghost, who has undoubtedly earned his place haunting the walls of Òran Mór, Ubiquitous Chip, and Hillhead subway station, where his murals are displayed. Most who live here recognise his broad-nosed, stony faces. He has won a rare familiarity: near the end of my visit to the Hunterian, a person standing next to me points to a misspelling of the word separation on a draft title page and says, “Only Alasdair would get away with that”. Three years after his death, he remains on first-name terms with his fans.

Gray lives on, and A World Made On Paper demonstrates that Lanark does too. The novel’s contents translate brilliantly to the walls of a gallery, where tiny sections of art and text are given the space to show off their individual intricacy. The Hunterian presents Gray’s most famous novel through the drafts written over old documents and the faces sketched in margins that gave birth to it. Lanark, this exhibition shows, is a story made up of far more than just four books.


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