Britain at play, 1943
By some mistake I thought this show was closing before I arrived. A good thing I double-checked on my next-to-last day!
I'm pretty sure I have never seen a single work by Lowry, and probably can't in the U.S. This particular selection of works has been energetically criticized (c.f. Schwartz in the NYRB), but it was all welcome news to me.
Room after room of the same horizontal bands of dirty snow, terra-cotta, putty, and the most unassertive, retiring kinds of black and bittersweet imaginable.
The elements create contrasts, a play of forces, a play of expectations. The geometry of the buildings is in contrast to the squiggly cyphers of figures. The geometry is never true, never crisply geometric. And the figures are not always cyphers—some seem recorded from life. The scenes are light, but the light is perfectly diffused, without direction.
And then there is the contrast between the quietly harmonious pictures and the subject matter. Which is what? LSL spoke of having a vision in Pendlebury in 1916:
I saw the Acme Mill, a great square red block with the little cottages running in rows right up to it—and suddenly I knew what I had to paint.
LSL was trying to capture a specific and unique landscape. He was moved by it. And he was canny enough to realize that pursuing a scene that other painters neglected could help him establish his artistic identity—and maybe even help his career.
But of course most viewers don’t recognize Station Road, Pendlebury, in the Greater Manchester borough of Salford. We see factories, the workers, and the worker’s homes and streets and parks. The specific places become generic types of places: factory, factory town, industrial slum, …. It is a familiar type of place.
Narrowly, it’s the world of the people whose labor makes the things of the modernity. More generally, it’s how the modern world physically produces, sustains and expands itself. Empirically, its what we have made of the world: The way we live now. Morally, it’s the human and environmental cost of that world.
It is quiet and cumulative rather than explosive and revelatory. Musical, really. He is a Morandi, a Giacometti.