Monday, 4 October 2010

Lapping up Lowry

Think of Manchester and there are a number of things that spring to mind. The rain, for one – although contrary to popular belief, the city doesn’t actually have the highest rainfall in the country.

You might also think of football, of Coronation Street, of the vibrant music scene, from the misery of The Smiths to the cocky swagger of Oasis to Northern Soul, or the rather grim industrial architecture that, while largely gone, still characterises this area of the country where cotton was once king.

There are still vast mills around the canal in Ancoats; mills like the ones that pepper the Pennine valleys; like the ones in Lower Mossley that I saw every day of my life there, with the grey hills louring over them.

Derelict buildings run alongside one side of Piccadilly, clinging stubbornly on in the face of the bland developments beyond that will have been designed to be obsolete in 30 years: I’ve stood on a platform at the station, waiting for a train in the chilling air and watching as the moon rises over them; buildings with decayed teeth for windows; eyeless, with plant life springing from corners like unruly tufts of hair on grotesque faces.

And then if you think of the Manchester of that landscape, it is no great leap to thinking of the paintings of LS Lowry.

I’ve loved Lowry’s paintings for years: the ‘naïve’ style, those “matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs”. In the first flush of adulthood, large greeting card reproductions, framed in cheap plastic, adorned my first homes. But I had never actually seen the real McCoy.

So on this trip to Manchester, I was determined to rectify that with a visit to The Lowry, the arts centre that has been at the heart of the regeneration of the Salford Quays area of the city in the last decade.

Not only does Michael Wilford’s expressionist building house two theatres, it also holds the world’s biggest collection of work by Lowry at around 350 paints and drawings, with 100 on display.

It’s not very often that I’ve had the chance to see such a body of work by a single artist in one place and at one time. And there is a tremendous benefit to it.

Familiar with some of the most famous industrial landscapes, I had far less knowledge of Lowry’s other work. And being able to take the time to read the notes for each work, then step back and look again, has great rewards.

What I became particularly aware of was the ridiculousness of the assertion by disparaging members of the art establishment that Lowry’s work was, for instance, ‘sentimental’. It’s actually nothing of the sort – and that’s without even considering the painter’s own stated belief that there was no place for sentiment in art.

One of the most dominant themes in Lowry’s work is isolation: from buildings isolated in the middle of a landscape (both urban and rural) to something as expressionistic as the 1966 Self Portrait, which shows a single column standing up in the sea.

Then there are recurring motifs such as walls or fences where the gates are most frequently closed, blocking off the viewer from what is on the other side.

And then there are the dysfunctional relationships. One such picture shows a family group – possibly one that Lowry had encountered in his day job as a rent collector. The mother sits, with the father standing behind; they face in opposite directions. The children are arranged around them. There is no communication. This is the antithesis of Victorian sentimental ideas of family.

The Funeral Party from 1953 is a prime example, with the mourners lined up, not touching, not speaking. And at the end, one with his back to the others: Lowry claimed that this was because he was in disgrace for wearing boots and a red tie to the funeral (cue memories of Stanley Holloway reciting Brahn Boots: now that is sentimental!).

Reproduction doesn’t do many of the works any favours either. The Sea from 1963 really stunned me, but I’ve yet to see a reproduction that shows the strength of the contrast that gives it such power in reality.

Likewise, in Street Scene from 1935 (see the top of this post), the boldness of the colours – and particularly the blackness of the most distant terraces and the mill itself – are partly what draws you right into the picture.

But Lowry, while he initially trained with French Impressionist Pierre Adolphe Valette, was no Impressionist – although seeing some of Valette’s own works later, in the Manchester Art Gallery, you could see the influence of master on pupil. He was not a straightforward Expressionist either.

Indeed, Lowry belonged to no school but his own. He was at once a Victorian and a modern man: look at the paintings and you see a bridge between two such vastly changed worlds.

And of course, he painted the world of the working class – a world that ‘ordinary’ people recognised and appreciated.

The critical view was never completely one-sided, but it has certainly developed much more complexity in recent years. There are now those who suggest that, when the legacy of 20th-century British painting is fully assessed, Lowry will be viewed as more important than the likes of, say, David Hockney.

For Hockney has never created an entirely new visual language to express himself. And that is exactly what Lowry developed in order to depict his highly personal visions of a subject matter that few others touched.

I also took the time to have a look at Mister Sixties: Philip Townsend’s Portraits of a Decade, an exhibition of photographs, including portraits and street photography.

That and small amount of the Manchester Art Gallery that I explored (my feet were killing me by then) made it a wonderfully arty Saturday, with plenty to think about.

The Valette room was worth seeing on its own: it is remarkable to see an Impressionistic vision of Manchester. York Street Leading to Charles Street, from1913, is just one example: it could almost be Paris!

Impressionism can make the 'grim north' look almost romantic. And the Valette pencil study, Male Nude With a Cane, is different again and quite superb.

I could quite easily forget that the gallery also houses a collection of Pre-Raphelite works, which might well be one of my least favourite schools. Okay – beautifully crafted, but I dislike the subjects and particularly the portrayal of women, which could well be part of that Victorian fear of 'the fairer sex' and of female sexuality that reveals itself in a range of artistic works, including Bram Stoker's Dracula.

They seem to me to partly show women as a sort of Protestant, secular Madonna – they may be secular pictures, but they have a religiosity about them; a reverence for idealised women on pedestals.

Lowry was most definitely not sentimental!

And to cap the day off, at least the rain took a well-earned break, after falling heavily on Friday. It needed a break, before absolutely lashing down yesterday.

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