Almost a week ago, I made my fairly usual pilgrimage when I visit Manchester to the Lowry at Salford Quays. I quite like what has been built on the old canals, but part of me is still a little nostalgic for a Manchester that I have actually never seen, the Manchester when the Ship Canal was still a major artery to the rest of the world, and, as I was taught in primary school, when Canada was “Britain’s Bread Basket.”
Still, it’s the Lowrys at the Lowry that I try to see whenever I’m in the North West. They never cease to intrigue and disturb. Apparently, Lowry himself did not really appreciate the bustling characters that fill so many of his pictures being referred to as “matchstick men.” I myself tend to think of them as “pin-men.” Whatever, in a strange way, these little figures with their blank faces and stick legs are nevertheless as alive and recognisable as more “realistic” portraits.
Then there is the whiteness of his work and his limited palette that captures what one imagines the old city looked like in the days before smokeless fuel and the closing of the mills meant a way of life passed into history. Further, the opacity created by the heavy flake white background flattens the work, confines it, restricts the viewer from looking further into the image. The white under-painting brings the reader to a full stop. One can look no further, for the texture of the paint itself reminds the viewer that the inhabitants of the tiny houses and the dead end streets are trapped. They will never broaden their horizons.
For me, Lowry’s industrial and streetscapes evoke the world described by Robert Roberts in The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century, though, of course, Lowry’s work begins as the period covered by Roberts is ending. The figures in Lowry’s pictures are often workers or shoppers. They bustle and hustle with the energy of determined respectability. But as they scurry to and fro, shopping in the market or hurrying to work, they are alone in the crowd. Even in grief, I’m thinking here particularly of Lowry’s picture of the funeral, they are stoically conscious in their formal black clothes of their own ability to endure. The faces with their dot eyes and single line mouths look out at the viewer of the picture not at each other. Even the two men fighting outside the pub seem somehow disconnected from each other. The struggle is with something other, something beyond. There is, paradoxically, an intense loneliness in these pictures of groups and crowds.
This sense of isolation continues in Lowry’s pictures of empty streets and of a church at the end of a street. The mood becomes even more intense in some of his sea pictures and in his strangely erotic picture A Landmark. One feels at times that while the artist was celebrated as a chronicler of working class life, he was not totally a part of it; rather, he was alienated from it, and his observations are the voyeuristic gaze of an outsider not the connected engagement of someone who belongs. I could not help thinking that in his capacity of rent collector, Lowry would have been a not always welcome figure in the streets and lives of the people he painted.
Unlike the painters of the Ashington group who painted from their own experience (See William Feaver’s, Pitmen Painters: The Ashington Group 1934-1984), Lowry is ultimately alienated from his subject even as he engages with it. Perhaps it is this enigmatic quality that keep bringing me back to his work.
Adjacent to the Lowrys, one finds Mary McCartney’s exhibition Developing. Not necessarily an inappropriate juxtaposition even if initially surprising. Perhaps the images of the ballerinas putting on their costumes, chatting back stage and in their dressing rooms share something with the Lowry figures. These dancers are the corps de ballet, not the prima ballerinas. McCartney’s pictures also remind us that so much of what we see in other people is just an image, something made up, a costume, a role.
One room of the exhibition is devoted to “Radical Women,” and here McCartney challenges us with images of Tracey Emin costumed as Frieda Khalo and Gwyneth Paltrow dressed as Madonna. Just what do we make of these strong women masquerading as other strong women? The photographs disturb and alienate even as we recognize their subjects.
As if aware of their own iconic status, McCartney’s subjects, such as Vanessa Redgrave and Helen Mirren, or the dowager Duchess of Devonshire, gaze at the viewer wide eyed, challenging. They are who they are, but there is little suggestion that they need to engage with us. There is something disconcerting about being faced by a life size portrait of someone who actually doesn’t see you. The figures look past you, gazing almost blankly somewhere beyond you, rather like the figures in Lowry’s paintings.
Both displays leave me with the sense of dislocation, of being an outsider, a fascinated observer of places where I don’t belong, asking with Lowry, “What does it all mean?”