How did a gritty Scottish seaport known for its industrial might become
a magnet for artistic achievement?
BY STEPHEN MCGINTY
Each time I walk up the stone steps and between the pillars of what is now the Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), I marvel that this elegant 18th-century neoclassical edifice was once a private home. Situated in the heart of the Royal Exchange Square, GOMA is a vast building that now houses artistic wonders. But before the visitor even reaches the steps, he or she is forced to pass under the stern gaze of the city's most evocative and controversial example of modern art. The Duke of Wellington, after winning the Battle of Waterloo and vanquishing the archdictator Napoleon, would never have imagined that, two centuries later, his own noble statue commemorating the glory of his achievements would be topped by a traffic cone.
No one knows who was the first person to clamber up the 20-foot statue and crown the noble duke with a plastic driving hazard marker, but whoever it was created a movement; those who followed have been legion. Whenever city workers take a cone off, it inevitably is replaced as soon as darkness descends. And for every Glasgow City Council leader who condemns it as an act of cultural vandalism, there are ten more citizens who feel it perfectly captures the spirit of a city that refuses to take anyone, especially long-dead war heroes, too seriously. Today, Wellington and his cone are an unofficial emblem of Glasgow, appearing on postcards, tea towels, T-shirts and even the letterhead of a city law firm, whose clientele, one imagines, are the frequently inebriated.
If you step inside the Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art, you can buy the image in any manner of derivations in the gift shop, which seems only fitting. After all, what is the image if not a prime example of postmodern populist art?
The full text of this article is available in the Winter 2016 issue of Scottish Life.
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Photos © Iain McLean / Scottish Viewpoint; The Glue Factory