Animated Urban Choreography
IN his distinctive and memorable pictures, L.S. Lowry summoned up a vision of a northern English city landscape that he knew well and studied closely over many years. He lived in an industrial suburb of Manchester. He moved there as a young man with his mother and father. Since he came from a more residential district, it took him, he said later, several years before his dislike of the area changed to tolerance, then interest, and finally obsession.
But Lowry was by no means simply a faithful recorder of a particular locality, though he did make drawings in the streets, presumably to stock his imagination. It was this imagination, rather than observation only, which was the main source of his pictures.
They were usually generalizations (though occasionally they did describe specific places) typical" scenes, painted in his room at home, at night. It had to be at night when he painted because throughout his career he worked for his living as a rent collector employed by a Manchester firm, rising to head cashier before retiring on a pension.
This was a fact that he kept secret when he became, late in life, an enormously popular and much exhibited artist. He was apparently embarrassed that people might dismiss him as a mere "Sunday painter an amateur, painting as a hobby.
He was far from that, but he did have an ambivalent attitude toward professional painters all the same, and the character of his work did not prevent artists dyed in the wool of the "art world" from scorning his pictures. He is still, despite continuing popularity, by no means a notable artist in the eyes of many art writers and historians.
Once, at a crucial, early point in his development as an artist, there was (as he told it) one art critic who angered him by showing how comparatively ineffective the overall dark tonality of his paintings was. He was angry - and then he listened. His tones had been aimed at capturing the soot-blackened character of what Blake called "the dark satanic mills" and their environs; what was missing as a result was strong contrast. His buildings, his figures, everything merged in the universal gloom.
The criticism had a remarkable effect. Lowry switched to his characteristic off-white ground, over which he painted, in a spare range of colors dominated by black, brown and gray, his settings of industrial buildings, chimneys, gas works, churches, and row upon row of workers' terraced housing. This universal off-white became in his hands a kind of bleak, foggy, smoke-hung atmosphere thickening away toward the most distant horizon and indistinguishably meeting the sky. It became the setting of his dream world.
His scenes (and they are rather theatrical) are often viewed as if from a high window or from the brow of some steep street opposite - a "world view" of the industrial wasteland that had once been "England's green and pleasant land" but had long since been devastated by the Industrial Revolution. The undulating mounds and humps of this scene were slag heaps and coal tips; "lakes" and "rivers" were virtually stagnant, unreflecting mirrors, fishless in their depths. Canals were what they were intended to b e: oily waterways for barges laden with raw materials. Lamp posts, telegraph poles, pylons, brick walls, stone walls - here, in such unpastoral places, trees had no part. If they were once or twice to be found, they would be alone, surrounded by iron railings. Railings were everywhere, keeping out and keeping in.
Yet, as Lowry's pictures abundantly and entertainingly show, it is possible to feel actual affection for such places, and to discover vitality in them. Lowry's character, as expressed in his art, had its share of hard irony, grim realism, an awareness of hopelessness and poverty; but he was also a humorous, mischievous, contrary kind of man, proudly unpretentious, warm-hearted enough to be forever guarding against "sentimentality." He was not a campaigning observer of social ills: His aim was always anyt hing more than to make pictures.
An often-repeated comment about Lowry is that he is "unique." Writers have claimed his paintings have no artistic predecessors (though they mention in passing certain common factors between his art and Pieter Breughel's or even 18-century social satirist William Hogart's). This idea of uniqueness is also often attached to so-called naive artists, those inspired innocents who fall somewhere between child vision and folk art. Although Lowry does have an instantly recognizable style and vision, shared by no
one else, he has precedents and he was far from naive.
He attended evening art classes for many years, and he received training from a competent follower of the Impressionists. And he undoubtedly took the considerable opportunities there were in Manchester and London to see other art, both new and old. His earliest paintings show him to be perfectly adept at a conventionally realistic kind of painting. For the work that is fully his own, though, he adopted an economical style, in particular a kind of artificial depiction of an enormous variety of urban human
beings, somewhere between the black-and-white comic world of Charlie Chaplin and caricature. One unkind critic called his urban scenes "Toy Town."
What Lowry did with his toy town, however, was something far more potent than mere play with crowds of little puppets. It is closer, perhaps, to a kind of choreography. In "Britain at Play," for example, he hasn't just filled up the streets, the park with bandstand, the playground with its swings, with countless silhouetted people. Most of these individuals are animated with purpose, sometimes forming into concentrated crowds, smaller groups, and twos and threes.
There is a kind of painting that can hardly be discounted as a forerunner of all these small figures in large white spaces, silhouettes intent on having a good time, dark shapes walking, running, standing, gossiping. It was practiced by more than one artist in the 17th-century Netherlands. Hendrick Avercamp is perhaps its best known exponent. This genre is the "winter landscape," with multiple figures skating on frozen lakes, receding - still crowded with ever smaller figures - into the distance.
Like Lowry's "off-white," the ice in an Avercamp provides a perfect contrast to the darker figures, silhouetting them, and thus making their outlines the chief indication of character and dress. Avercamp's paintings were so often reproduced on calendars, biscuit tins, and the like, and so frequently adapted by Victorian and Edwardian illustrators that Lowry need not have gone to an art gallery to study them in order to have taken them into his consciousness of pictorial possibilities. Even his comedy, al ways just around the corner from the grim implications of urban overcrowding that he is depicting, is a re-creation of Avercamp and his type.
This is by no means to cast aspersions on Lowry's originality, however. The imaginative "truth" of his paintings (to anyone who has lived in the urban north of Britain, Lowry's vision is stirringly evocative) is so uncanny and persuasive that - whatever their simplification of visual reality and whatever their appeal to the popular - questions of his status in the art world (was he amateur? was he important?) don't actually matter. In his own way, even if it is "minor," Lowry is authentic.