Glasgow: Giving art the hurry-up

Deadline. It’s not an attractive word. When I worked as a magazine editor I took great pains to avoid using it, preferring euphemisms such as ‘due date’ and ‘due time’ when giving my contributors a friendly nudge. And it seemed to work.


Our tour guide in Scotland is going to be less flexible, I can tell. “You have one hour. Be back at the bus on time,” he announces laconically on the microphone as we pull up outside Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, our first excursion.


My jaw drops, not least at the sight of the building’s magnificent Spanish Baroque facade fashioned from red sandstone, but because I’m being asked to give art the hurry-up, which is foreign to me. But, then, so are bus tours.


I race up the stairs of the grand entrance, trying to think fast on my feet. If I have 60 minutes to see 8,000 objects in 22 galleries, how many nanoseconds per object, minus sprint time from gallery to gallery? I’m no maths whiz, but even quiz show contestants get more thinking time.


If I can’t see Kelvingrove’s entire collection, at the very least I have time to see its most famous painting, and then come what may…


Liberated from the burden of the deadline by this quick thinking, within minutes I’m gazing up at the painting declared Scotland’s favourite in a Herald poll in 2005: Salvador Dali’s Christ of St John of the Cross (1951). Not everyone, however, was enamoured of the Spanish surrealist’s painting when Dr Tom Honeyman, then director of Glasgow Museums, acquired it on behalf of the City in 1952.


The newspaper cuttings in the curator’s accompanying electronic scrapbook paint the full, controversial picture. Though the price of the work was reduced from 12,000 to 8,200 pounds and sagaciously included copyright, Glasgow art students protested against what they considered an extravagant purchase, arguing that supporting Scottish contemporary artists should have been the City’s higher priority. If time is money (and an artist’s greatest asset is, ironically, their death) the painting must now be worth a small fortune.


Leaving the dimly lit, intimate room where Dali’s evocative portrait of Christ is displayed, I can’t help but think Sister Wendy would be in her element here, gliding along the tiled colonnades from one gallery to the next. I need to get my skates on.


In one of these airy thoroughfares a bronze sculpture by New York-based artist Patricia Cronin catches my eye, enough to stop me in my tracks. Memorial to a Marriage is a mortuary portrait of Cronin and her life partner, artist Deborah Kass, lying half-naked in a loving embrace. It’s a brave artist who would portray herself in death.


The bronze is a copy of Cronin’s original ‘19th-century American neoclassical’ Carrara marble sculpture, which was initially installed on the Cronin–Kass burial plot in Woodlawn Cemetery, New York, in 2002. For a time it was the third most visited plot in the Bronx cemetery after those of jazz greats Duke Ellington and Miles Davis.


“In death I make official my ‘marriage’, which was not legal for most of our relationship,” Cronin is quoted on the poster above the bronze, which includes a joyous photograph of the women celebrating their nuptials (yes, they are very much alive!) outside City Hall in July 2011 after the New York State Senate passed a bill allowing gay marriage. In addition to the work and its sentiments, the beauty of this exhibit is the way the curator draws upon the artist’s voice to flesh out her story.


If the best stories are those you come across unexpectedly, I strike gold again when I hurriedly gloss over the usual suspects – the European masters – and chance upon La Faruk Madonna (pictured) in a small adjacent room known as the Every Picture Tells a Story gallery. The triptych was painted by Italian POW Giuseppe Baldan for the tiny mud chapel in the POW camp near Berbera, northwest Somalia, where he was held by the British during World War II.


Using the only materials available to him in the austere desert camp, Baldan painted the Madonna and angels on the back of flour bags. The background, far from grandiose or romanticised, depicts the POW camp, including the chapel where the paintings were installed above a makeshift altar, and the colours of the Italian flag disguised as washing on a line in an inconspicuous corner of the canvas.


Given the devastation of war, the survival of these poignant paintings is nothing short of miraculous. The accompanying literature and photographs are invaluable in telling the story of how Kelvingrove came to acquire them. When the camp was disbanded, Somali soldiers destroyed the chapel and slashed the paintings. However, the Italian soldiers rescued the canvases and gave them to Captain Alfred Hawksworth, the British officer in charge of the camp.


When Captain Hawksworth tried to return the paintings to the former POWs in 1965, camp interpreter Luigi de Giovanni wrote to him: “You must keep them for ever as a gauge of gratitude and love by the 35,000 people who owe you, beyond their life, the dignity of a human treatment.” The two men kept in contact after the war and holidayed together with their families. Thirty years later Mrs Hawksworth gave the paintings to Kelvingrove.


Running for the bus, I reflect on the fact that Baldan and his fellow POWs had endless hours to contemplate their fate and, evidently, their faith. Despite my one-hour deadline, I don’t feel cheated. I’ve sampled and appreciated some of Kelvingrove’s best exhibits and its progressive approach, which is eclectic, inclusive, accessible and interactive.


Free entry and daily organ recitals are among the drawcards, and I particularly love how the exhibits are geared towards storytelling and are displayed to appeal to the next generation of art-lovers. Many paintings are hung lower than usual, for instance, to engage younger viewers, and accompanying interactive screens abound.


If I have one regret, it’s the fact that I didn’t have time to address the elephant in the room. Yes, I’ve missed out on seeing Sir Roger, who toured the country with a travelling menagerie in the 1880s when he was alive. Today he still pulls a crowd as one of Kelvingrove’s oldest, most timeless exhibits.

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