Review of Andrew Causey's Paul Nash: Landscape and the Life of Objects and Philip Vann and Gerard Hastings' Keith Vaughan
Paul Nash: Landscape and the Life of Objects Andrew Causey (Lund Humphries, 2013)
Keith Vaughan Philip Vann and Gerard Hastings (Lund Humphries, 2013)
The trouble with herding artists into groups, the better to differentiate the various contrapuntal movements and 'isms' which have become enshrined in mainstream art history, is that it can give us, the audience, an excuse to cut corners. However unfamiliar we are with the work in question or momentarily unsure about how to react to it, one look at the accompanying blurb will often allay our concerns. This is 'Northern Renaissance' or 'Post-Impressionist' or some such. Instantly a host of cultural correspondences rear up to add significance and context to what we're looking at. All of a sudden we're no longer open to the elements, aesthetically speaking.
Not that we, the viewing public, are usually to blame in the first place for this sort of artistic pigeon-holing. When the adoption of a gang name hasn't been a means for a group of young tyros to give themselves a common identity, it has often been a collective term bestowed upon them by some opportunistic, choleric or pretentious art critic. The needs to pin down, to amalgamate, to classify are, no doubt, recurrent and deep-seated human impulses - which is not to imply that such impulses are necessarily a bad thing. How else to trace the various influences, correspondences and fundamental shifts that have informed what we think of as the history of art? It's just that sometimes, in pursuit of seeing the wood for the trees, we can be just a little too eager to put everything in its rightful place.
A case in point is the way a number of British artists of the last century got bundled together under the nomenclature 'Neo-Romantic.' This is the term used to describe a diverse array of individuals, chiefly painters, who, if they had any sort of common fund of inspiration, found it (to greater and lesser extents) in the skewed legacy of progenitors such as Samuel Palmer, with his numinous take on British pastoral art. There is, to use a somewhat hackneyed term, something unheimlich (familiarly unfamiliar) about Palmer's work during the period when he lived in Shoreham during the early nineteenth century. Almost certainly this wasn't a premeditated approach on his part, having more to do with the influence of William Blake's illustrations than any overwhelming desire to unsettle the viewer. Nevertheless, in amongst the harvest moons and hallucinatory apple trees there lurks a sense of nature's green mystery, something potent and unredeemed that occasionally catches our eye. It would take almost a century after Palmer completed these works for them to be rediscovered by such future luminaries as Graham Sutherland, who would imbue his own work with a similar sense of dreamlike disconcertion at the immediacy of the natural world
There is, however, a danger at this point of easing gently into a history of Neo-Romanticism as it has been handed down to us. Palmer begat Paul Drury who begat Sutherland who begat John Piper who begat etc., so that, before we know it, we're saying hello to the Ruralists and latter day off-shoots such as Bryan Winter and Clare Woods. Nevertheless, some would say that this remains a traceable and useful genealogy, particularly when you start investigating a particular cluster of British artists around the mid- twentieth century who approximately shared a characteristic approach. Look for a deliberative, roughly modernist take on figurative and landscape art, semi-abstract or gauchely surreal, often pallid, sometimes a touch too smug but, at its best, gloriously uneasy in its own skin. Call it Neo-Romanticism, although that's not a collective term that the artists involved ever coined to describe themselves. Beyond a core group of acquaintances, neither did they significantly interact with one another on anything like a collaborative basis. Even so, for all its faintly rickety credentials, Neo-Romanticism seems to be a term which we can live with. That is, until you start to dig a little deeper, when what at first appears to be a broadly unified creative disposition starts to get a little more variegated and interesting. This is perhaps shown to best effect by considering two artists representative of the (so-called) first and second wave of Neo-Romanticism - Paul Nash and Keith Vaughan.
Lund Humphries have recently published books about both of them. In each case Paul Nash: Landscape and the Life of Objects by Andrew Causey and Keith Vaughan by Philip Vann and Gerard Hastings are generously illustrated whilst managing to include a wealth of thought provoking text about their subjects. These books are highly recommended introductions for anyone who hasn't come across Nash or Vaughan before, as well as valuable additions to the existing literature. Taken together, they also provide an intriguing record of the juxtapositions and polarities between these artists that make the Neo-Romantic tag so suspiciously accommodating. Of the two, Nash is much the better known, not least for the work he produced in both World Wars. As an officer in the trenches and an official war artist, he depicted devastated French landscapes in such well known paintings as The Menin Road and We are Making a New World, whilst just over twenty years later, again in an official artistic capacity, works such as Totes Meer see Nash adapting the war-torn panorama theme to make the 'dead sea' of the German title a thalassic mass of wrecked aircraft. There was, however, more to Nash than just his war pictures: much more, as Andrew Causey's densely illustrated book shows. In fact, it feels at times as if Nash's artistic personality is obscured by his strikingly versatile productivity. From his earliest Rossetti-inspired symbolism through the years of quasi-surrealistic experiments with de Chirico-like deserted environments and then on to his later, colourfully restless landscapes, it can seem as if Nash was constantly trying to chance upon his artistic persona. No bad thing, perhaps, if we expect artists to perpetually elude our expectations of them. However, there's a difference between the artist whose creativity outstrips our ability to keep up, and one who seems to be trying on a succession of different styles to see which one fits.
Fortunately, a by-product of such versatility was that, every so often, Nash produced something with an authenticity of intent and vision that still resonates. It's as if, suddenly, he has connected with the spirit of his subject matter in a way that makes the work peculiarly his own, rather than a heavily reworked assemblage of influences. Such talk of vision and spiritual connection are, perhaps, apt when considering Nash's own comments about the 'inner life of a subject', which appealed to him, particularly in terms of landscape and the natural world. As he himself put it, "I turned to landscape, not for the landscape's sake, but for 'the things behind' [ ], the dweller in the innermost: whose light shines thro' sometimes." From early on in his output the human figure starts to become less and less important in the composition, being, typically, assigned a stilted stick-figure walk-on part in the corner of some scene of rolling English countryside. Nature in the shape of trees, stones and plant life, or the uneasy relationship between sea and land, were what interested Nash more, and he often ascribed something approaching an anthropomorphic inner life or 'personage' to them. "Trees are people", he claimed, as well as contending that "the stone itself has its spirit, it is alive."
It is as well, however, to delve beneath the face value of such statements in case they should give the impression that Nash blithely rambled through the countryside engaging in one-sided chitchat with his friends the Horse Chestnuts or marvelling at the infectious giggle of a lump of granite. Rather, Nash was interested in developing a sense of place by intuiting the sensibilities that had seeped into a location from its remote past: immersing himself in its genius loci, as he termed it. In a sense, this engagement with a particular place and the ancestral consciousness that lingered in it reintroduced the human into his work as an unseen, but all the more immanent, presence. This idea of the vicarious proximity of all those who were long gone but somehow still resident in certain special places became a theme which eventually circumscribed much of Nash's later, and some would say best, work. Before Causey's book gets to that later period, though, the reader is given an insight into the artist's singular talent for book illustration, particularly in his designs for an edition of Thomas Browne's Urne Buriall and The Garden of Cyrus. This is followed by some intriguing observations on the character of English art and how Nash saw his own work in relation to that problematic category. In the author's short digression on this subject, perhaps more attention could have been given to the insidious pitfalls of appropriating cultural artefacts in pursuit of a sense of nationality. In particular, amongst the fundamental questions to be asked in the quest for 'English art' must surely be - whose England and whose art are we talking about? And just who are 'we'? As far as Nash's work can be used to address such questions, it might be as well to consider his attitude to the places in this country that he deemed worthy of depiction. As has already been mentioned, Nash was artistically drawn to certain special locations towards which he would experience a kind of proprietorial allegiance. However, when he began to feel that one of those favoured spots, Swanage in Dorset, was losing its unique character thanks to its spoliation by development and tourism, Nash made no secret of his contempt for the 'unbearably vulgar' types pouring out of overcrowded trains to violate his demi-paradise. Such remarks all too readily betray a certain notion of England as some precious artefact to be brought out of the display cabinet on high summer afternoons and worshipped by a genteel cabal of hushed devotees. Translated into the practice of art, this kind of arrogant elitism can soon lead to stale repetition that feeds off its own increasingly solipsistic values. Not that Nash can be consigned to the outer darkness so easily. European modernism, with its fascination for the grubby egalitarianism of popular culture, had a palpable influence on his artistic development, so that even if, in deploring the 'unbearably vulgar,' Nash betrays an unpleasant snobbishness barely (if at all) excused by the period and cultural milieu within which he operated, it would be unfair to forever label him as little more than a parochial bigot.
Be that as it may, another favoured location, Oxfordshire's Wittenham Clumps rising out of the Thames Valley, would be amongst the main inspirations for Nash's final landscapes. In a colourfully dramatic series of canvases, Nash would find a way of fusing his passion for nature and the atavistic correspondences that it suggested with an assured and intensely poetic technique. In works such as Landscape of the Vernal Equinox, Flight of the Magnolia and Eclipse of the Sunflower there is a vivid sense that the artist has shucked off those influences and protocols that he might have previously observed in order to shore up his reputation as one of the artistic haut monde. In 1942, as he was beginning these works, Nash himself stated that he knew he was entering his 'last phase,' something which his death in 1946, aged 57, confirmed. It is, perhaps, a touch too fanciful to see these last works as the artist's side of a dialogue that he had already begun with the great beyond, and yet there does seem to be something valedictory about them. If so, it is a spectacular leave-taking and one that continues to demonstrate his enduring artistic importance.
In the case of Keith Vaughan, the ending was not so much a crescendo as a dissonant coda to a life and artistic career that had drawn to a close, so far as the artist himself was concerned, in pain and frustration. One way of assessing the difference between Nash and Vaughan is to think of their respective outputs broadly in terms of Isaiah Berlin's well-known distinction between the fox and the hedgehog. So we have Nash the fox who, in his artistic passage through the several rooms of early twentieth century art, knew many things, whereas Vaughan the hedgehog, in his semi-abstract obsessive studies of the human form, knew one big thing. A makeshift analogy at best, but it does at least give the potential reader an indication of what to expect from perusing the two books under review. With Nash there is a varied (and variable) succession of different styles and subject matter on nearly every page, whereas in Vann and Hasting's study of Vaughan, the artist's resolute persistence in revisiting certain compositional and thematic ideas over a long period of time is much more to the fore. Not that, when it comes to comparing the two artists, this means that Vaughan is a less complicated proposition by any means. If Nash can display a dazzling breadth of motif, Vaughan's depth of expressive scrutiny, particularly in terms of the naked male body, can often be startlingly mutable. As someone who seems to have been at various times sensuously exhilarated, aesthetically challenged and emotionally isolated by his homosexuality, Vaughan's brooding arrangements of figures, usually with few or no discernible facial features, are replete with a solitary bewilderment at their own corporeality, particularly the way it seems to rack them with both sexual desire and vulnerability. Reminiscent in several instances of the figures that Matisse depicted in works such as La Musique and La Danse, but without their sense of innate unity, Vaughan's figures at times seem more like the same form spawning reproductions of itself, in some sort of anguished attitudinal monologue. As he himself observed, "A critic once wrote that I seem to be obsessed with what it feels like to have a body. He was right. Maybe other people take [it] for granted...But I find it a constant baffling mystery - the duality of I and myself." This sense of the bodily self as a constructed other, one which, according to Vaughan, "belongs more to the environment, to nature, than to oneself," seems also to relate to the artist's feelings of alienation from the society in which he was forced to hide his sexuality, particularly during the nineteen forties and fifties when, in the days before a change in the law, he found himself "a member of the criminal class."
However, it would be inaccurate to portray Vaughan's output as simply an exercise in sexual self-analysis. Indeed, amongst his most vital and exhilarating works are the occasional landscapes scattered throughout the book. If they are considerably outnumbered by his figure studies, these landscapes are, nevertheless, conspicuously accomplished compositions which can range from cubist-like exercises in multiple perspective to virtually abstract blocks and scumblings of colour. In examples such as Village after Sunset II and Myknos, Greece, the artist seems intent on dispensing with superficial representation in order to expose the essential temperament of a place or the way that a combination of colour, light and form can infuse a scene with unlooked-for, intangible energy. Nevertheless, for all his facility with this kind of composition, Vaughan would return to the human figure time and again. Perhaps the epitome of his achievement in this subject was his series of Assemblies of Figures painted between 1952 and 1976. In these works Vaughan would produce his most pared-down, vulnerable examples of 'participants,' as he put it, who "have not assembled for any particular purpose such as a virgin birth, martyrdom or inauguration of a new power station." These 'participants' seem somewhat Beckettian in their individuated awareness of being locked within some private dilemma: sometimes cradling their heads in a gesture of self-comfort, sometimes crouching in despair, and, at other points, seeming to threaten violence with a brooding, restless stance. Taken together, these paintings summon up contradictory and powerful impressions of estrangement, stoicism and muted anxiety. To varying degrees, these are also qualities displayed by Vaughan in his journals, parts of which have been published in their own right, and which are drawn on judiciously in Vann's extensive essay, which takes up most of the book. In these journal entries Vaughan comes across as someone who could be both rhapsodically observant of the world around him, but also witheringly self-aware of his own perceived failings. By all accounts, this astringent side to his character could make him difficult to live with, and at least one acquaintance describes Vaughan's behaviour towards a long-term partner as amounting to a protracted campaign of mental cruelty.
In the end, however, it seems that Vaughan saved the worst of his vituperation for himself. Despite having successfully exhibited and sold his work from the forties through to the seventies, and, in the process, gained an impressive reputation, he appears to have spent a great deal of his time combating feelings of loneliness and failure. Not that this made him hopelessly morose towards his friends and fellow artists or the many students he taught, who seem to have found him unfailingly urbane, sympathetic and intelligent. However, once Vaughan had been diagnosed with cancer in 1975, his ensuing depression and loss of libido precipitated an increased dependence on alcohol and narcotics. Although he managed to carry on working to some extent, Vaughan became gradually more reclusive before finally committing suicide in 1977. Whilst it is not always helpful to interpret an artist's works with direct reference to the life, Vaughan's output appears to be a case where that kind of biographical cross-referencing does seem to yield significant interpretive benefits. Admittedly, you don't need to know about his internal crises or sexual anxieties to appreciate the power of Vaughan's best work, but to be without that background knowledge is surely to miss out on an important contextual orientation when faced with the full force of the artist's strangely bleak compositions.
When assessing the careers of Nash and Vaughan, it is intriguing to reflect on how their respective journeys seem to epitomise the waxing and waning of Neo-Romanticism, as that narrative has been handed down to us. In Nash's case we see a British artist of the early twentieth century who was representative of a certain disposition amongst his peers, turning away from Continental avant-garde themes to instead explore the autochthonous correspondences of his homeland, albeit under the aegis of a modernist sensibility. In doing so, Nash and his ilk established a creative haven of sorts (or should that be ivory tower?) in which two generations of artists were empowered to develop an artistic sensibility which, whilst taking note of the latest developments to excite the cognoscenti in Paris and New York, was not committed to emulating them. All well and good as far as it went, except that by the late sixties that license to remain an honourable exception to the rest of the art world's fads and fashions began to seem less and less sustainable, particularly when home-grown artists such as Richard Hamilton had already seriously undermined their countrymen's detachment by taking up with the iconoclastic Pop Art types some years earlier. Vaughan was appalled at this drift towards the sardonic beatification of mass culture: "After all one's efforts […] to make some image which would embody the life of our time, it turns out that all that was really significant were toffee wrappers, liquorice allsorts and ton up motor bikes. So one could have saved oneself the trouble. I understand how the stranded dinosaurs felt..." Given what we know about Vaughan's melancholic disposition, it isn't perhaps surprising that he couched his resentment at such allegedly gimmicky arrivistes in these kinds of terms. Having said that, and however bitterly ironic he meant his words to be, they also suggest that he was being left behind in the relentless stampede towards some sort of artistic zenith. But art doesn't work like that. Art neither evolves as such, nor will it one day come to rest in some final state of maturity. So, despite his misgivings to the contrary, the fact that, by the seventies, the idea of an artist as primarily a painter of pictures on canvas had become almost a quaint notion in the world of installations, happenings, Viennese Actionism et al does not detract from the force of Vaughan's work. Similarly, in Nash's case, it would be a mistake to portray him as simply one of that select band of early twentieth-century English artists who helped to wake a nation of gallery-goers from the Victorian slumber of art as morality sermon, and just leave his achievement at that. Even if these two artists continue to be celebrated as stars in the Neo-Romantic firmament, their best work continues to speak to us in ways that transcend such expedient typecasting.--Mark Jones
Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life: Exhibition and Catalogue Review
Exhibition at Tate Britain, 26 June - 20 October 2013 Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life T J Clark and Anne M. Wagner (Tate Publishing, 2013)
Laurence Stephen Lowry is one of this country's most popular painters, but one whose reputation within the art establishment is fairly mixed. Few of his works are to be found in galleries around the world and he rarely features in any account of twentieth century world art. For example, Robert Hughes' influential 1980s book The Shock of the New not only does not discuss him in any detail, it actually fails to mention him at all. Yet to many he represents the quintessential English artist of the last century. Slightly eccentric, vaguely anti-establishment, he holds the record for refusing offers of public honours (five, including a knighthood), and painted subjects which defiantly connect him to the working class environment with which he was so familiar. However, Lowry remains something of a challenge to the art historian: where should he be placed, mainstream or parochial, talented, naïve amateur or still unappreciated professional? Although the Tate owns more than twenty of his works none are to be found in its permanent display, an issue taken up in 2011 by the actor Ian McKellen when he demanded that the Tate should sell the collection to galleries which would display them more regularly. Against this backdrop of controversy, the Tate recently staged the first major retrospective for more than forty years, bringing in two of academia's most highly regarded art historians, Tim Clark and his wife Anne Wagner, to curate the show.
Lowry was born in Stretford, Manchester in 1887 to solidly middle class parents. After an undistinguished school life he worked for various companies as an office clerk, and in 1910 was taken on by the Pall Mall Property Company as a rent collector and clerk. He remained with the company until 1952, when he retired with a full pension. It is one of the many unresolved ironies of Lowry's life that he kept this job a secret from the art establishment until well after his retirement. However, in terms of his art, it meant that industrial landscapes and the people who inhabited them became familiar to him on a daily basis, as it was precisely within such environments that he carried out his daily routine.
In 1905 Lowry began to attend drawing and painting classes at the Manchester Municipal College of Art, where he came under the influence of the French Impressionist Adolphe Valette. Lowry continued to attend classes at various colleges around Manchester until 1928, most of which were taught by Valette. The exhibition includes one of Valette's oils from 1913, York Street Leading to Charles Street, Manchester, a city scene in which workmen and motor vehicles are visible under a railway viaduct bathed in smoke and evening haze. It is a work entirely within the French tradition of the late nineteenth century, but one in which we can easily identify the themes which resonate in Lowry's own work - the industrial landscape, the working class going about their business, the hard-edged depiction lacking any kind of romanticism. This is indeed the response to Baudelaire's demand that the artist must paint modern life.
Although Lowry did paint a few portraits, or at least paintings in which individuals are clearly the subject, it is true that he is best known for his depictions of industrial landscapes, based around his native Lancashire. However, as the curators make clear, and as becomes increasingly obvious while viewing the exhibition, the landscapes with which he presents us are not precise records of what he saw in Manchester and its surrounds. Although he is amongst the most perceptive of artists, the scenes are all constructions, amalgams of the things around him but never complete portrayals of actual places. This is highly significant, for rather than choosing an exact place to paint and then exploring how different light might change the scene, as, for example, Monet might do, Lowry selects elements of the real world-- factories, people, water, chimneys and the streets which connect them all-- and then melds them into a finite unit. It is this process of construction which lifts the work of Lowry onto another level altogether.
There are many outstanding works on display, and as one moves through the exhibition the feeling grows that it is the constructed nature of the scenes which impresses most. Artists have always drawn inspiration from the world around them. Cézanne's landscapes of his native Provence are wonderful examples of how the environment in which the artist lives can inspire him to create images that communicate ideas beyond merely reproductive visual reality. Cézanne's finest works have a quality which transcends place: the viewer looks beyond the depicted landscape and begins to touch something which is timeless. Before we get too carried away, let me make it clear: Lowry is not Cézanne! Yet there are similarities. There are some works here that communicate ideas which are significantly more complex than the simple reality of mid-century Lancashire. In A Northern Hospital (1926) Lowry constructs a deceptively simple scene: a large black brick building with suitably darkened windows, with a few industrial chimneys disgorging their smoke into eerily white clouds. In the foreground a small group of people gravitate towards the hospital gates. The creamy white street which runs the length of the picture has more tiny people, all seemingly going about their everyday business. This is all fairly sombre, but quite plausible as a realistic portrayal of its subject. Yet there is more to the painting than this. Partly hidden behind the wall dividing the entrance gate from the main building, a horse-drawn, square, covered cart is patiently waiting. No driver is visible, the horse and cart seemingly frozen in time, but this addition to the scene reveals that Lowry was no ordinary recorder of place. This deceptively simple image is, on reflection, actually quite complex and transcends what is actually portrayed. The inclusion of the static hearse, and its relationship with the group of indistinct people who shuffle around the entrance, are at the heart of this painting. People live out their lives in Lowry's blackened industrial world, and part of this, obviously, is the reality of death. As clearly as any seventeenth-century still life of a skull on a table, this work is a momento mori, a reminder that we are all mortal. It was this painting which first revealed to me that Lowry has not been well served by those facile pop songs about matchstick men. Yes, the figures here are tiny with thin little legs, but they are part of a wider humanity, struggling to survive within a hostile landscape, and eventually finding themselves within the blackened walls of the municipal hospital. For some, Lowry suggests, this will mean a final journey in an unmarked cart, and probably a pauper's grave. In his essay in the catalogue, Tim Clark recalls a comment that Maurice Collis made to Lowry in 1951, “Everyone who has written about you has always said that in your paintings you created beauty out of the ugliness of mean streets. But these streets are not mean; they have a strange hardihood, a subtle beauty,” to which Lowry replied quickly, “That is it. I was inspired by their beauty.” This work is a masterpiece of understatement, it rewards long contemplation, and these are perhaps key elements in understanding Lowry's work. The commonly-held view that Lowry was a provincial self-taught artist who merely recorded the industrial landscape within which he lived and worked simply does not stand up. The evidence of works like Northern Hospital (note the imprecise location) suggests that he was the consummate constructor, that he harnessed landscape to reveal other truths which he wished to communicate. If he was never an artist who could stand alongside the likes of Cézanne, he was also not the naïve amateur who simply painted what he saw. From the 1920s onwards, Lowry produced townscapes for which he became increasingly more well-known. He exhibited regularly both in this country and abroad. From 1928-38, for example, his work was included in the prestigious Paris Salon d'Automne and Artistes Francais, a significant indicator that in French art circles, at least, he was regarded as something more than a talented amateur. However, throughout his career he did not just create these famous urban scenes—as this exhibition reveals, other subjects occasionally caught his eye, with equally impressive results. As someone who grew up in the 1950s I was familiar, in a way in which we are not today, with the victims of the war. Men with limbs missing were a commonplace, disfigured faces were familiar, and I vividly remember a gentleman who used to do the shopping for my grandmother, because he was unable to work—his "mind was not quite right" (her words). As a child I did not understand why there were so many injured men around me; they were simply part of the world as it was then. Otto Dix painted devastating images of German war survivors in the 1920s, works which are rightly regarded as some of the most searing critiques of the effects of modern warfare. In 1949, Lowry painted one of his own. It cannot be too often emphasised that Lowry painted imagined places, populated with people representing types rather than specific individuals. In The Cripples (1949), Lowry takes on both the past and the future. He presents us with a snow-white landscape of indeterminate location, but this time the figures in the foreground dominate the scene. The figures themselves are the subject, not the world in which they are placed. This is a common enough theme: soldiers have come home, back to the country for which they fought. And what do they find? The world that they left as healthy young men is still the same, only they have changed. A white-faced man with no legs pushes himself along on a little trolley, approached by a child who might be about to put a penny into his begging pot. In the centre a man on crutches stares out at us with sunken eyes as behind him two able-bodied figures walk past, oblivious to the broken people around them. A one-legged man stands in front of another child, while behind them a hunchbacked figure shakes the shoulders of someone who has a hook instead of a hand. This is a catalogue of human misery and sacrifice, but one which is characterised by understatement and pathos. Lowry does not enter into the debate of whether the war was right, or if the world was now a better place (surely it was not)-- he tells us, as powerfully and simply as the painter of Landscape with The Fall of Icarus, that all human tragedy is also our own.
The final room of the exhibition contains more surprises. One is used to seeing Lowry works on a small scale, canvases forty or fifty centimetres across at most, yet in the early 1950s he completed five monumental works three times the usual size. Lowry called these works "composite," as if for the first time publicly acknowledging his modus operandi. He said of The Pond (1950),"This is a composite picture built up from a blank canvas. I hadn't the slightest idea of what I was going to put in the canvas when I started the picture but it eventually came out as you see it." Admitting to its deliberate, artificial construction could be yet another of Lowry's smokescreens. Lowry has again succeeded in producing a deceptively simple image which, on closer scrutiny, becomes something challenging and even frightening. At first we are reassured by the human figures in the foreground. They seem well-dressed, the children are safely playing football in the street in front of the houses, and their world is clean and tidy, while a little further into the picture other people are enjoying leisure time on the water. In many ways the front half of the picture represents some kind of industrial ideal, where the factories which dominate this world enable a more comfortable lifestyle for the workforce and a better future for their children. If we look at the top half of the picture, though, we see another perspective, an alternative nightmare reality. Stretching away into the distance is mile upon mile of indistinguishable houses, interspersed with smoking factory chimneys and the odd church spire. If one blocks out the foreground, the result is reminiscent of Nash's We Are Making a New World, a barren landscape devoid of human forms where anything natural has been destroyed and nothing will grow, and which seems to be going on forever.
This is an eye-opening exhibition, for it both reinforces old views of Lowry and challenges them. He did repeat himself, as did Monet, Cézanne and Vermeer. He found his subject matter early on and continually worked on it, but as this exhibition clearly demonstrates, he did not attempt to portray the world in a particularly realistic way. On the contrary, everything was filtered through his imagination, and it is this realisation which gives his work its power. Lowry should no longer be seen as a provincial creator of matchstick men and their funny little world, but as an artist who used the environment with which he was familiar to challenge our perceptions of life in industrial societies. The works on view here do not succeed in placing Lowry within the canon of world art, but they do confirm his importance to art in twentieth century England. --Paul Flux