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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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L.S. Lowry: Environmentalist?

Monday, July 05, 2010

At the Lowry Gallery in Salford, where L.S. Lowry's "favourites" are laid out, it is clear just how much artistic range this wry observer had.

From the "grotesques" of his late phase (including the horrible "Man with Red Eyes"), to some early Impressionistic paintings inspired by art teacher Adolphe Valette, Lowry was about far more than the industrial landscapes imposing upon minute, semi-human figures that now grace a thousand posters.

In an excellent short film, it becomes clear that key to Lowry's art was his relationship with his mother, who took to bed after the premature death of his father and then thereafter "dominated by her frailty." Lowry's industrial landscapes, as well as his grotesque portraits and scenes (such as "The Cripples"), project his own lonely anxieties that he would never be capable of pleasing the one woman with whom Lowry (described by peers as asexual) had a significant relationship.

Partly with this knowledge in hand, and partly because they were inspired by his vacations in two places with which I am very familiar - Sunderland in the North East, and Lytham-St.-Annes in Lancashire - I am most moved by Lowry's sea paintings that became prominent towards the end of his career.


These are haunting in their bleakness, Turneresque but without the cathartic drama of the sky; they embody an especial sense of absence or lack because they are by an artist most renowned for his depiction of crowds of characters in urban settings. Perhaps the most intimate of all his pictures is this one, entitled "Self Portrait":


In the exhibition video, that large pillar thrusting out of the sea is, unsurprisingly, described as an "erection." The loneliness of the sexual battle depicted here is baffling but also somehow stoical, and intimately revealing.

Rather whimsically, though, I begin to wonder whether as well as an artist exploring his own trauma through projecting it onto any subject that came to hand - cityscapes, portraits of grotesque characters, seascapes - Lowry might also be seen as an environmental artist. Lowry once remarked, rather intriguingly, about his later fascination with the sea:
It's the battle of life - the turbulence of the sea...I have been fond of the sea all my life, how wonderful it is, yet how terrible it is. But I often think...what if it suddenly changed its mind and didn't turn the tide? And came straight on? If it didn't stay and came on and on and on and on ...That would be the end of it all.
With quotes like this from the end of his career, Lowry seems to have rehearsed in miniature the history of climate change. This man who started off painting the grime of industrial Manchester concludes with a turn to nature; it could be ironically said that not only the repressed of his mother comes back to haunt those lonely, sexualised sea paintings, but the repressed of pollution does too. What if the sea did - or does - come on, and on, and on? Might that black pillar in "Self Portrait" represent some kind of urban as well as personal apocalypse, a Cleopatra's needle in a flooded London?

Of course, this is all my daft meanderings - but that I can have them at all does serve to indicate that Lowry is certainly not a monodimensional artist of the city, but presents a vision that stretches and ranges far beyond his most famous industrial subject matter, provoking the viewer in ways he might not expect.

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Posted by Alistair at 7:00 am

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