In these vistas of ‘ugly, lovely towns’ (to borrow from Dylan Thomas), the people – elsewhere the true focus of Lowry’s painting – are in many ways more incidental. The buildings, instead, become metaphors for their tough, constrained lives, the relentlessness of it all captured in the smoke that pours from the chimneys, day and night.
From the very early Industrial Landscape, Wigan of 1925 (Private Collection), through to 1930s masterpieces such as River Scene (1935, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle) and the stark, haunting The Lake (fig.2, 1937, The Lowry, Salford) and on to the large-scale 'panoramas' painted in the 1950s, such as The Pond (1950, Tate), Industrial Landscape (Ashton Under Lyme) (1952, Bradford City Art Gallery) and Industrial Landscape (1953, The Lowry, Salford) which made up the final room of his recent Tate retrospective, Lowry returned again and again to what he called ‘composite’ vistas. Whilst these paintings are based on real buildings, real places (such as the Irwell, the heavily-polluted river that divided Salford from Manchester), they are never simple ‘views’, but very deliberate constructions – made from inter-dependent parts: chimneys, factory, terraces, waterways, waste-ground – through which Lowry aims to capture the essence of the industrial town. As he wrote of the Tate’s Industrial Landscape: ‘The picture is of no particular place. When I started it on the plain canvas I hadn’t the slightest idea as to what sort of Industrial Scene would result. But by making a start by putting say a Church or Chimney near the middle this picture seemed to come bit by bit’ (Lowry, quoted in T.J. Clark & Anne M. Wagner, Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life, Tate Publishing, London, 2013, p.111).
The monumental panoramas of the 1950s are no doubt remarkable for their complexity and for the way Lowry sustains an intensity throughout, never once lapsing into infill or cliché, but one can't help feel that they lose something of the poetry of the earlier paintings, works such as The Lake or A River Bank (the present lot). At 28 by 36 inches, A River Bank it is still large for a Lowry, yet the emotion within is very economical, very contained. This has much to do with Lowry's masterful handling of (muted) colour and tone and the subtle, alternating pattern of deep blacks, smoky greys and brick reds, in point and counterpoint to the brittle whites of the river and waste-land.
Whilst Lowry's technique always tries to mask its own dexterity, his use of colour is unerringly sophisticated, even more so when restricted, as it is here, to a palette so limited, that even the most austere of his abstract contemporaries - an artist such as Ben Nicholson for instance - would surely have approved. But in Lowry's hand, even this artfulness acts to make the scene feel uncannily real, the buildings more solid, the streets and the water colder: a stripped down version of the 'truth' that feels truer.
In 1947, when A River Bank was painted, Lowry knew that this urban – and cultural – fabric was almost gone, so he sought to distill it, piecing it together from memory and experience. In doing so, according to the eminent art historian T.J. Clark, in his essay for the recent Tate retrospective catalogue, he became one of the great ‘painters of modern life’, who saw the city as the key to ideas of modernity and a cipher for the human condition, which has been transformed beyond recognition, even beyond comprehension, by two centuries of industrialisation. Furthermore, Clark and his fellow author Anne M. Wagner, in their foreword make a compelling case not only for the relevance of Lowry’s work for a contemporary viewer, but an international viewer. In reference to another composite ‘industrial landscape’, Landscape Wigan, but equally applicable to A River Bank, they note that these works speak 'to the present – and alas, to the probable future – in ways that only a London-and-Los Angeles art-world could imagine no longer relevant. The swamps and chimneys are those of Wigan seventy years ago, but could well be the edges of Shenzhen or Sao Paulo in 2013. Lowry’s art may eventually be shown in such places. It is sad to think that this will be because his tragic vision comes in time to resonate with these societies’ sense of the ‘great leap forward’ they have taken in Wigan’s wake’ (T.J. Clark & Anne M. Wagner, ibid., p.19).
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