Animated Urban Choreography

Article excerpt

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 be: 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. …