Is this Scotland’s visual art capital? Vicky Smith thinks so

Sometimes you are confronted with such genius that it makes you feel teary. So it was with me and Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre, a spellbinding experience that sees Eduard Bersudsky’s kinemats (moving sculptures) creak into life against an ethereal backdrop of sound and lighting. 

Despite the dark undertones - Soviet misrule, war and loss are among themes that lurk beneath the comedic veneer - there is also a wistful magic to the exquisite contraptions, many of which first performed in St Petersburg. In the mid 1990s, sculptor-mechanic Bersudsky and theatre director Tatyana Jakovskaya brought their show to Glasgow and it’s been entrancing audiences here ever since.

Sharmanka Introduction from Sharmanka on Vimeo.

It’s little wonder Sharmanka has found a home in Scotland’s second city. Such ground-breaking spirit is seen in other artforms too, not least music - Glasgow was named the UK’s first UNESCO City of Music in 2008 - but its visual art scene, which I was there to discover, has long been doing things differently. After all, this is the birthplace of artist and architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who pioneered British Art Nouveau. Add in heavyweight institutions like The Burrell, plus a thriving contemporary milieu, and you have a design-lovers’ break that’s hard to beat.

Mackintosh House – Glasgow Life
Mackintosh House at the Hunterian is a stunning recreation of the home that Charles shared and designed with his wife, the artist Margaret Macdonald Image: Glasgow Life

Design seeps into dining too. After Sharmanka, I went to Cafe Gandolfi: a restaurant in trendy Merchant City known for its furniture by the late Tim Stead (who, incidentally, worked with Bersudsky on the breathtaking Millennium Clock and is honoured in the kinemat Master & Margarita). Sinewy and organic, Stead’s tables and chairs are like sculptures in themselves. They’re among several artworks in the buzzy bistro, including glass painter John Clark’s luminous Flock of Fishes and Sharmanka’s St. Mungo inspired by Glasgow’s patron saint.

Fortunately the cullen skink was as delectable as the art.

Cafe Gandolfi Glasgow – Cage Gandolfi
Cafe Gandolfi features the sculptural furniture of Tim Stead: who, like Mackintosh, attended the trailblazing Glasgow School of Art (GSA) Image: Cafe Gandolfi

I spent a lot of my trip exploring the legacy of Mackintosh: from the meticulously reconstructed tearooms on Sauchiehall Street, also ideal for a spot of afternoon tea, to Mackintosh House at the Hunterian and the gorgeous Glasgow Style exhibition at Kelvingrove. See what’s on for the CRM Society’s 50th anniversary and consider a themed walking tour if you’re a fan - this includes the striking mural, pictured courtesy of Glasgow Life, in the main image. But even beyond the “Gaudí of Glasgow” you’ll find plenty for art lovers.

Following an entertaining bus tour packed with anecdotes and attractions, highly recommended for getting a feel for the city, next up was Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Located in Kelvingrove Park, near fashionable Finnieston, this enormous institution was designed in Spanish Baroque style using Locharbriggs red sandstone and is as grand inside as it is out; centred around the soaring entrance hall with its record-breaking organ, 22 galleries span Ancient Egypt to animals and a multitude besides.

Kelvingrove Art Gallery And Museum – Glasgow Life
Glasgow abounds with amazing architecture, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum being a prime example Image: Glasgow Life

Art-wise, visitors can take in an impressive collection from Britain and beyond. Alas, Salvador Dalí’s Christ of St John of the Cross was out on loan during my visit but I still found lots to enjoy: Anthony Green’s Embassy Lodge - The Visit with its surreal composition, Edward Burne-Jones sumptuous Danaë and Harry Clarke’s bejewelled Coronation of the Blessed Virgin in stained glass to name but three. Arguably the highlight here, though, is local talent ­­- spanning groups like the Scottish Colourists to the famed GSA, represented with older works from the Glasgow School plus those of later alumni like John Patrick Byrne (subject of a temporary exhibition).

Stead, Mackintosh, Byrne, even the founders of design firm Timorous Beasties - those who studied at GSA have helped shape Glasgow’s creative scene for almost 180 years. I discovered yet more at the small but superb Hunterian Art Gallery, both in its permanent display and shows on illustrators Alasdair Gray and Frank Quitely. 

Timorous Beasties Glasgow – Timorous Beasties
Timorous Beasties is renowned for its tasteful maximalism Image: Timorous Beasties

Across the road from the Hunterian’s art gallery is its main museum, built on the collection of 18th-century anatomist and physician William Hunter and nestled amid the Hogwarts-esque Gilmorehill university campus. Charting our relentless quest for knowledge, it’s packed with everything from preserved body parts to wacky bird nests (the weaver bird’s is especially astounding). Projects such as Curating Discomfort, meanwhile, reveal attempts to confront the wrongs of the past - much like Kelvingrove with its recent historic repatriation.

Such initiatives are commendable, though one venue accused of getting a little too political is The Burrell Collection. Reopened last March following a £68.25m refurbishment, it was denounced by feminist campaign group For Women Scotland of “imposing contemporary Western viewpoints” onto other cultures after calling Buddhist goddess Guanyin a “transgender icon”. Guanyin wasn’t the only labelling faux pas but, caption controversy aside, I found the transformed museum a storming success. Timber, glass and Glasgow’s ubiquitous red sandstone create a dynamic and light-filled space that’s both stylish and sustainable.  

The Burrell’s namesake collection, that of shipping magnate Sir William and his wife Constance, contains over 9000 objects spanning six millennia. Highlights include outstanding Chinese art, medieval stained glass, more than 200 tapestries, and they’re just for starters. It could easily feel overwhelming but the spacious design and clever display techniques instead makes for a lovely experience - particularly if followed by a walk in the venue’s home of Pollok Country Park, Glasgow’s largest green space, which also boasts an adorable herd of Highland cattle. A seasonal tip? Go in Spring to see the fluffy calves.

The – Csg Cic Glasgow Museums Collections
The Burrell houses one of the world’s greatest personal art collections Image: CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collections

After taking in 6000 years of history, it was time for something more current. Enter the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA): a popular creative hub with a year-round programme including cutting-edge exhibitions, film and performance. The CCA is one of many such venues in Glasgow, which has long attracted artists thanks to landmarks like the GSA plus the city’s affordability and funding opportunities. Major events, for instance the Glasgow International Festival, have further bolstered its reputation.

CCA also happens to run the lively Terrace Bar and, my destination for dinner, Saramago Cafe Bar. Situated in an inner courtyard strung with fairy lights and plastered with posters, this cosy space serves up seasonal vegan dishes and a sizeable drinks menu that includes lesser-known alternatives like orange wine. Trendy yet unpretentious, it was a satisfying end to the day.

Cca Glasgow – Cca
The CCA is a Sauchiehall Street staple Image: CCA Glasgow

It may excel in shows and exhibitions, but simply wandering Glasgow’s streets offers much to marvel at too; and I’m not just talking about the aforementioned architecture, which unsurprisingly makes it a film directors’ favourite. Public art is another strength, and I rounded off the trip by following the city’s extensive mural and contemporary art trails: meanwhile stumbling across my own “extras” like Alan Dawson’s unusual peacock on Princes Square Shopping Centre. 

Glasgow Mural Trial – Glasgow Life
Glasgow’s mural trail includes Smug’s beautiful depiction of a modern-day St. Mungo, Glasgow’s patron saint Image: Glasgow Life

From the UK’s first UNESCO City of Music to its friendliest city, the superlatives keep coming for Glasgow - but I’d suggest another. It may lag behind bonny Edinburgh in some respects, not least visitor numbers, yet for me this is undoubtedly Scotland’s visual art capital.

In the words of the national saying, it’s “pure dead brilliant”.  

Follow Vicky Smith on Twitter @VickyWordsmith

Fact file

Vicky travelled to Glasgow on Avanti West Coast. Want to start off your Glasgow trip in style? First Class offers table service and a dining menu featuring enroute suppliers.

She stayed at the eye-catching Apex City of Glasgow Hotel on Bath Street, incidentally close to where Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald once shared a home. Hallmarks include a top-notch breakfast option, quirky touches - rubber ducks and colourful art to name but two - and expansive views from some rooms.

Read next: Is Glasgow a more exciting music city than Manchester?

Read again: What to expect in Manchester food and drink 2023

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