A few years ago John Byrne said of himself, ‘I have many voices and many different colours of voice and different mimicking voices as well and I think at my time of life it’s about time to start on some serious business.’ Perhaps, however, all those different voices, and in so many different media too, already constitute pretty serious business. As Sandy Moffat has said of Byrne’s painting: ‘His refusal to cultivate a single style is in fact the main distinguishing feature of his work.’ The distinction also goes beyond his art however to embrace the dizzying variety of art forms in which Byrne has been successful.
He first became famous as author of the fast moving, dark and funny television dramas Tutti Frutti, first broadcast in 1987 and Your Cheatin’ Heart, broadcast in 1990. Before that success, he had written the three plays in The Slab Boys Trilogy (later made into a film.) He has written a good many stage and radio plays since then, too. He has also directed two films, written a novel and recently, with the publication of Donald and Benoit, he has become a children’s author. The lively, humorous illustrations he has done for that book are, however, a reminder that among his many talents, he remains first of all an artist.
Robert Hewison’s richly illustrated new biography John Byrne, Art and Life is therefore rightly an artist’s monograph in both form and title. Byrne is a painter, but he is also a prolific and inventive print-maker and along with the usual apparatus of a monograph at the back of the book, exhibition history, chronology, and so on, there is a catalogue of the prints he has made over the years with Glasgow Print Studio. As a monograph, this book will take its place in any library of Scottish art.
The book’s illustrations amply demonstrate how it is Byrne‘s gift as a superb and naturally gifted draughtsman that underlies all his art. This is most vividly seen, not in his familiar and often quirky paintings with all their fascinating riffs on the styles of modern art, but in the beautiful and unexpectedly straightforward drawings he has done of members of his family. Academic is the wrong word for them. More like Picasso in his classical mode, they reveal the artist without the defensive mask of irony that we see above all in his self-portraits, his default position as an artist. These are illustrated in the book in all their dazzling variety and there can be no doubt that variety is an intrinsic part of his self-image and so of his personality, but perhaps it is also a function of the fascinating life-story that the book tells.
Born in 1940, Byrne grew up in Paisley. His mother was schizophrenic and to put it mildly, life was not easy. His first employment was as a slab boy, a dead-end job grinding paint on a marble slab in a paint workshop, a dreary occupation, but a stage of his life later immortalised in The Slab Boys. The extravagant teddy boy fashions and the music that gave welcome colour to his life in Paisley at that time still feature in his art. Glasgow School of Art was his escape from all this. With David Donaldson in charge of painting, drawing was still highly rated there and Byrne’s talent was recognised. He won medals in his final year and, too, a travelling scholarship that took him to Italy.
His extraordinary talent for metamorphosis was also recognised at the School of Art. When he was still a student, G.W. Lennox-Paterson, Deputy-Director of Glasgow School of Art, said of him that he was one of the most able students the school had seen, but then added, ‘He is something of a chameleon. We have had paintings by him ranging from Bonnard to Picasso which the masters themselves could not have failed to admire.’ Mercurial might be a better choice of word than chameleon, reflecting his brilliance and elusiveness and his capacity to surprise, rather than any need to hide. As he launched his career as a professional artist, however, initial disappointment did indeed lead him to hide and under a typically ingenious camouflage. His first success as a painter came, not as John Byrne, but as Patrick.
Struck by the commercial success of naive painters, he adopted his father’s name and sent pictures to the Portal Gallery in London as a naive artist, Patrick Byrne. He later admitted the deception, but continued for a while to be two artists. Indeed, the figure of Patrick still appears as an alternative, emblematic self-image in his work as it does in pictures like ‘Love’s Arrow’, for instance. A painting from 2009, the classical imagery in it of the pains of love may reflect on the complexities of the artist’s domestic life at the time.
This kind of role playing has always been part of Byrne’s art. You see it constantly in his self-portraits. They are also a kind of autobiography, however, and autobiography seems often to lie on or just beneath the surface of what he writes, too. That was clearly the case with The Slab Boys, but is also apparent in his later work. It is as though in his art, in all its diverse forms, he has sought to define and redefine himself against the uncertainties of the collapsing old industrial order, or disorder, of the west of Scotland. As a painter in this he has much in common with Steven Campbell. Campbell was younger, but they were friends and shared a similar background. Byrne’s portrait of Campbell is remarkable and profoundly sympathetic. Campbell did not diversify his output quite as much as Byrne has done, but the narrative style in his painting was shaped as much by film as by the history of art. He too could find his way effortlessly through its styles and, like Byrne, he was constantly reinventing himself against a world whose dizzying flux is so eloquently reflected in the perfectly unreliable logic of his pictures.
In 1991, commenting on work by Byrne in a group show at the Scottish Gallery W. Gordon Smith wrote, ‘Scotland seems to have mislaid a painter of remarkable talent.’ As a painter, Byrne had indeed been mislaid. His artistic career lagged behind his other successes and between 1975 and 1991 he only exhibited theatre designs. In 1988, however, after the success of Tutti Frutti, he was commissioned to make a filmed self portrait for the BBC, Byrne about Byrne. In the film he painted a self-portrait. Thereafter his exhibiting career began to take off.
The idea of a fresh start that Byrne is contemplating in the quotation with which I began the essay followed the revelation that arrived in 2002, when, through a cousin, he learned his mother had been abused by her father and that she had on her sister’s birth and until her own marriage taken her mother’s place in his bed. For all its horror, this deathbed revelation came as a huge relief to Byrne suggesting as it did the source of his mother’s schizophrenia and lifting the burden of anxiety that it might have been hereditary. Byrne’s partner for many years, Tilda Swinton, commented more ambiguously on his state of mind. ‘I have lived alongside a polymath and have always been intrigued by his integrated schizophrenia,’ she said in 2003. Integrated schizophrenia is a curious way of putting it, but perhaps it does describe the constant self-analysis in his art, the string of self-portraits in which, nevertheless, somehow he remains elusive.
Certainly, it would be wrong to suppose that all this self-imagery is mere narcissism, any more than it was for Rembrandt. Indeed perhaps Narcissus himself is misrepresented by the way we use his name. Maybe it was not self-love that brought about his melancholy demise, but perplexity. Like Hume contemplating the elusiveness of the self, the more Narcissus gazed, the less certain he was of what he actually saw in the reflecting surface of the pool in which he drowned. As for individuals, so for nations, Byrne’s voyage through such a perplexingly fluid identity matches that historically, first of Glasgow, and then of Scotland itself. Collective identity is not born of grand generalisations, but from the convergence of countless individual identities. His exploration of individual identity in so many ways and from so many angles has been a crucial part of Scotland’s second growing-up. I hope it’s not too optimistic to speak that way. If it isn’t and indeed we are recovering a more adult sense of ourselves since the advent of devolution, then John Byrne is one of those whom we must thank for it. He is a man of and for our time. Now Robert Hewison’s excellent book gives us new access to this brilliant and mercurial modern Scot.
JOHN BYRNE – ART AND LIFE
LUND HUMPHRIES, £35.00, 128PP ISBN 978-1848220478