“PASTEL WITH FLYING SNAKE AND VOLCANO.” It’s a fairly anemic title, isn’t it? It’s the makeshift title I had to invent for a pastel drawing by my late brother Ally, which my nephew Feargas and I discovered to our surprise hidden in the back of a forgotten portfolio as we were clearing out his studio a year or so after his death. Although the pastel layers are characteristically thick and tempestuous, I recall that the paper is unusually thin and had been slightly damaged or folded at its edges, something that the framer I hired fortunately managed to successfully iron out. We exhibited the pastel at Ally’s posthumous retrospective exhibition at the Lillie Art Gallery in Milngavie in 2019, and since then it has hung on the wall next to the staircase that I habitually climb to my attic each time I ascend to write stories, poems, or articles such as this.
This morning I felt a compulsion to lift the picture off the wall and lay it down on the floor where I could give it a long and closer look while I gave thought to its meaning. I suspect that passing by it each day I have somehow taken it for granted without ever giving it due attention. It is something of an enigma and may never fully give up its definitive secrets. But Ally would have quite liked that, of course. Why did he leave it in that old portfolio? Could he simply have forgotten about it, perhaps while drunk? Or were elements of its subject matter too off-beat to please his usual buyers?
It was Ally’s normal custom, more often than not, to choose an evocative title for a picture, to get people thinking, but occasionally when all else failed he would simply revert to a straightforward description of the picture’s content. Sometimes the more evocative titles were things I suggested to him from literature, but with him no longer alive I felt that this time that would be over-stepping the mark with this mysterious picture. Also, I don’t think such naming would have been possible. The picture’s meaning seems too diffuse, too strangely ambivalent, for any definitive poetic label.
As far as I know, it’s the only picture he ever created that features a volcano, albeit a rather abstracted one. One from which puffs of smoke are shown emerging, as from the chimney of a steam engine. The volcano has a large keyhole shape, one of Ally’s trademark symbols, usually representing a gateway to some hidden spiritual dimension, carved into its centre, near the base. The walking figure to the front-side of the volcano appears to be almost of a size to be able to potentially climb through that keyhole, and his striding posture, walking away from us, back turned, gives every indication that he may even attempt this unwise course of action, or at least peer inside. This volcano seems more like a kiln therefore, a huge chimney-topped oven, such as those that used to line the banks of the river Clyde in its industrial heyday and can still be seem in some very old historic paintings. This volcano seems like some kind of ancient oven of the natural world, and phrased like that it is hard not to take it as a symbol of death, though also perhaps death and rebirth.
Why a volcano? The picture is dated 1996, and as far as I can see from records on the internet, that was not an unusually active year for volcano eruptions on Earth. There was however a very significant eruption at Gjálp in Iceland in October of that year, Iceland being about as near to Scotland as any volcanic eruption is ever likely to get. Ally always followed the television news closely and was particularly sensitive to visual images and primal natural forces. Taken together with the presence of two very stark white leafless trees in the picture, I think there is reasonable grounds to conclude that Ally created the picture in late autumn and was influenced by the images of the Gjálp eruption. It’s too long ago for me to remember if we ever discussed that at the time, and I certainly never saw this drawing until years later after his death.
But those leafless trees mean a whole lot more of course. 1996 as a year in Ally’s CV was halfway between two of his sojourns in France in 1992 and 1999 in Paris and Avignon respectively. After his initial flush of success with his agent Norbert Binotti, he would have been despairing at the possibility of his chance at fame slowly slipping away, and at the prospect of getting older without having found love or fulfilment in his personal life.
The other major symbol in the picture, taking up as much and indeed slightly more space than the volcano, is the distorted image of a house counterbalancing it, to the right hand side of the composition. But this is no comforting symbol of home. It has a single door, black as if shadowed like the entrance to a tomb, and a single square window high up like the aperture of a monk’s cell. The double-meaning is that the pitched-roof of the house also operates as the head of an arrow, pointing to heaven. So our striding figure in the foreground, with whom we are presumed to identify and sympathise, apparently faces a choice, between approaching the smoking oven of the volcano or retreating to the prison-like safety of the family home with its perceived moral strictures. Out of economic necessity, Ally still lived with his parents, a fact that always irked his self-esteem, a fact he would seek solace and escape from on long restless walks across town and country, and in gradually increasing bouts of drinking and frequenting bars and night clubs.
It’s not a happy picture. The wonderfully brooding horizon line confirms this, brilliantly tipped at a ten degree angle like the camera lens of a Hitchcock film when something particularly untoward is going down. Reality and sanity, he is signalling to us, are under threat. But there’s still more, other symbols, he’s crammed into the picture. We have a large blood-red sun centre-stage, pawed at by one of the branches of the white blasted trees, as if pleading with the lord of life for reprieve and redemption. But there’s also, almost hidden to its left, another more curious orb, black like some weird moon, or a portent of imminent eclipse. Lastly we have perhaps the picture’s most startling ingredient: a green snake sailing across the top of the sky. What to make of that? Ally was immersed in the art and words of William Blake, and this snake brings to mind those strange and ominous words from Blake’s poem ‘The Sick Rose’ as follows: O Rose thou art sick/ The invisible worm, /That flies in the night / In the howling storm: /Has found out thy bed / Of crimson joy: /And his dark secret love / Does thy life destroy.
Well, when we put all of that together, and look again at the picture, personally I feel perhaps its jarring ingredients begin to gel and coalesce in our heads into a coherent message. Maybe this mental work needs done by the viewer, precisely because the artist’s mind was in an explosive state of disarray as the pastel was created. The elements are spinning around violently, threatening to fire off in various separate directions at once, as the artist’s sense of self and hope reach the brink of giving way. As ever, the image depicts Ally himself, although he invites us to inhabit his path with him. The figure faces a choice between the strictures of home and the forge of art and nature, some terrifying and exciting oven where an artist can be consumed and potentially destroyed by his own passions. There seems little doubt which way he is going to go. Indeed, the choice has already been made in the feet and the mind of that stubborn little figure.
It seems significant that Ally fuses the passion of his art with Nature in the symbol of the volcano. He hold the gods, all of creation, responsible for the raging fire inside him. He is the volcano, and he will erupt. He will break the sky, break the day itself, enter the oven and thereby escape and be remade into some new day and life. The picture presents Art as a fusion of Death and Life, an expression of Gaia itself, wrecking every human vessel it uses, a sacrifice to which he announces himself now brave or bitter enough to assent to.
If I had come up with a poetic title back in 2019, and been so arrogant as to give it to this picture posthumously without my late brother’s consent, I see now that title might have been something like ‘The Forge Of Minerva’ or ‘Under The Volcano’. Having now written the foregoing analysis, I come to the conclusion that it could very well be an even finer picture than I had thought until now, and that maybe even Ally himself was too close to it to fully perceive its true value as an honest testament of human pain. At any rate, the picture was found and saved. It lives and will go on living beyond us it is to be hoped, until its next eruption.