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Exhibition Review Settling for the crowd-pleasing compromise

John Byrne’s art is the story of who we were and why we failed, rather than who we might become, posits ANGUS REID

John Patrick Byrne: A Big Adventure
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow

GLASGOW is bidding farewell to John Byrne, the artist, playwright and famous son of Paisley. It’s an emotional affair. For Glaswegians, Byrne is the incarnation of the working-class artist and an exhibition of his work at Kelvingrove Gallery is awash with love and hyperbole.

At the same time, a sharp and classy production of his musical Underwood Lane is greeted with uncritical acclaim despite the dense argot of the dialogue, which is almost incomprehensible to the untuned ear.

For a certain audience of a certain age Byrne is a secular saint, and they are in awe of his talent, his success, his in-jokes and his taste in music. But this is also a chance to step back and assess the John Byrne phenomenon, and how his work has represented working-class people.

The exhibition is littered with unexpected clues: a letter from Magritte, a mystical Perugian church interior, and the study of a severed pig’s head, as good as Goya.

It also gives you a sense of the shape of his achievement.

Throughout his long career Byrne has used the self-portrait to perform different personae on the canvas, from the Beardsley Gothic of his Self Portrait In A Long Coat, through the full-on Frank Zappa pop of To Be Continued, to the protestation of innocence in old age Hands Up, the last masterwork of his mature style.

To have performed himself on canvas so often is unusual and in this he resembles no-one in Britain or the US so much as Jacek Malczewski (1854–1929) the “father of Polish Symbolism.” Malczewski, like Byrne, flaunts an exceptional technique and dramatises his domestic life for the purposes of art.  

The ambition of all this self-observation is to lay claim to ownership of a national identity.

And just look — as men with a flair for the dramatic they share an identical prop: that moustache.

So far, so much endebted to late 19th-century European romanticism.

The leading figure of the Polish avant-garde, after Malczewski, was Stanislaw Witkiewicz who, like Byrne, combined portraiture with playwriting and it is to this central European tradition of Eclecticism that Byrne really belongs.

People may say that Byrne is a “world-class” artist, but in reality he is a 20th-century European artist who deals with secondhand American culture. There is no comparable American artist even if there is a hell of a lot of the US in Byrne.

But he does not do America like an American: there is no attempt at abstraction or abstract expressionism in the way that Joan Eardley achieved. There is no landscape. There is no immensity. There is only a blizzard of period details.

His greatest achievement as a painter comes at the culmination of his “Patrick” period (when he passed himself off as a “primitive” painter) when he confronts US culture through the lens of the European avant-garde.

This is American Boy, an Irish-looking red-haired ambi-sexual dwarf in velvet pantaloons who holds a giant marble (as though inviting a game) and waves a strange star-spangled pennant. It is a deeply mysterious and disconcerting image.

That Byrne wrote to Rene Magritte, and Magritte replied, is a fascinating detail and illuminates the choices and self-imposed limitations that shape Byrne’s art.

Magritte was clearly a role model. Magritte was a surrealist, and a communist. He believed that art had value insofar as it had revolutionary content and was opposed to the bourgeois ideal.

The visual language that gave “mental luxury” to the working class was surrealism and Byrne’s furthest foray in this direction is the disconcerting immaturity of American Boy.

But he couldn’t sell it. Instead he sawed it in half and retreated from the ideal.

In the following decade, the 1970s he turned to theatre, designing sets and posters, and he nurtured his ability to write dialogue. The dramas that make his name — Writer’s Cramp and the Slab Boys Trilogy — take situations with working-class people and view them nostalgically. Albeit with immense sympathy, all he can do is to look back to the past, and never forward to the future.

This is not revolutionary in the way Magritte intended. This is the story of who we were and why we failed, rather than who we might become.

The exhibition is called A Big Adventure as though that paradigm describes his whole life. But the real adventure in question is simply Byrne’s escape from Ferguslie Park (at the time the most deprived area of Europe) via Stoddard’s Carpet factory to Glasgow School of Art.  

The rest of his work will be repeated efforts to recycle that single story, but with forensic attention to language and the details of pop culture.

He has nothing to say, in other words, about a future Scotland, but a great deal to say about Glasgow in the 1960s, and the aspic in which he is pickled is pretty much the very moment in which Phil Spector mixes the Righteous Brothers.

You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling is the centerpiece of Underwood Lane and to sing “blue-eyed soul” is the act of wish fulfilment at the centre of an incoherent musical that is itself only legible as wish fulfilment.

It is replete with miracles. The Beatles have transitioned from skiffle to rock’n’roll (the style). Gerry Rafferty has just met Carla Ventilla, an apprentice hairdresser from Clydebank (the plot). The Protestant bigot (a female drummer) is a tolerated minority in a Catholic community (the absurdity). The wronged Catholic heroes sing down from heaven, and all the ingredients of Rafferty’s as yet un-composed Baker Street are laid out around the stage, alto sax and all (the wish fulfilment).

Byrne’s aesthetic has so saturated the production that it no longer resembles the past so much as one of his own sketches come to life. With precisely tuned haircuts, snarls, cigarettes, neon and padded shoulders its fatalistic message (that music is sweet but wont fly you out of poverty) unfolds as tableaux laden with period references but without any polemical or narrative drive.

Similarly, in his visual art, he perfects the image at the expense of the meaning. His late sculpture Feg is a brilliant miniature that lifts graphic art into three dimensions to stunning effect. A Feg is someone from Ferguslie Park, and to see a black eye on a bronze is a brilliant Byrne-esque coup.

He gets away with it yet again, but who is it for? And, more importantly, why does he always settle for the crowd-pleasing compromise — Tutti Frutti and Your Cheatin’ Heart, neither of which are remotely surreal – when the potential of his early vision was genuinely radical?

What shines through Underwood Lane and provides the answer at the end of his long and productive life, is the understanding, made explicit for the first time, that Byrne (that most Irish of names) speaks on behalf of an urban minority, Catholics in Protestant Glasgow.

Together with others who lay claim to Scottishness — Billy Connolly, Gerry Rafferty and Donovan — his work is formed by the endlessly pressing and existential need to assimilate, to be visible and to be recognised.

Is it the fate of the artist from a social minority never to get beyond the need to please, and does this comforting image of the Scottish working class as ambassadors of “cool” liberate anyone?

Rather, in all its BBC and ITV-commissioned splendour, is it not the spectacle of the working class — a nostalgic simulacrum recycled through the bourgeois media — that has arisen to keep them in their place?

Until September 18 2022. No need to book, just drop in — adult £7.50, concession £5, under 16s free.


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