These are very much Salford men, from the streets, factories and pubs of Manchester’s twin city across the River Irwell; the father Lowry’s Manchester Man (1936-7), revisited years later, stripped of his pride and hope and turning in ever-decreasing circles of low wages and low expectations. Indeed he is on the same agonising journey of slow social degradation that Lowry’s own father went through, dragging the family from the leafy and relatively affluent suburb of Victoria Park to the rougher streets of Pendlebury. The painting can therefore be read as being extremely specific to Lowry’s life, a form of self-portrait, in which the two sons could both be the artist himself, the one on the right retaining a glimmer of his mother’s ambition for better things, the one on the left, narrower, more pinched, standing as the spitting image of his father’s failure.
Yet they are also faces that could have been glimpsed anywhere in the first half of the 20th century (and Lowry’s works, on the whole, are set in the 1920s and 30s, regardless of when they were painted). They are the hungry urban poor, from New York’s Lower East Side; from the American Dustbowl; from Weimar Germany in the grip of hyperinflation; from the streets of Paris observed by Manet and Degas (Fig.1). But what makes Lowry so significant today is that these faces have been re-cast in those parts of the world undergoing the same rapid industrialisation and urbanisation Europe experienced at the end of the 19th century. As T. J. Clark and Anne Wagner proposed in their introduction to the recent Lowry retrospective at the Tate, the city of Lowry’s imagination could easily be Shenzhen, or Rio, or the outer reaches of an Indian megalopolis; Father and Two Sons could be a chance encounter on the streets of Shanghai, outside one of the small stock exchange shops where small-time investors can lose what little they have.
This is a painting about memory and experience, the past and the present. Its impact - carried most clearly in those mesmerising eyes, but given an aching finesse in the narrow slopes of their shoulders and the empty background whose vertical brushstrokes run like tears - is perhaps best described by literary comparison, for great literature too is both specific and timeless. The father is a Salford Lear, here dividing his kingdom of troubles and small debts between his sons; or a figure straight out of the imagination of Samuel Beckett, Krapp from Krapp’s Last Tape, with perhaps all three men waiting outside the factory gates for Godot to arrive. Beckett’s work is, in fact, a perfect lens through which to see Lowry’s later painting, in which he reduces the city to nothing, save for the hard, brittle white of its pavements and frozen waste-grounds, and chooses instead to focus on small groups and single figures, set in isolation, beset by dislocation. Just four years after he painted Father and Two Sons, Lowry attended the Manchester staging of Luigi Pirandello’s absurdist masterpiece, Six Characters in Search of an Author. He was bowled over by it and saw the play on numerous occasions. The strangeness of its staging; the loneliness and isolation of the characters; their broken stories coming into focus, briefly and then fading – all of this he had begun to explore in works like Father and Two Sons and The Cripples (Fig.2, 1949) and would, consequently, make his main theme in the last fifteen years of his life.
Equally, this work contains more than a nod to Walter Greenwood’s hugely influential novel, Love on the Dole (1933), set in Hanky Park, a slum in Salford a little further down the social-scale to Pendlebury. Both the sons in Lowry’s painting could be Harry Hardcastle, younger brother of the novel’s heroine Sally, who quits his low-paid job at a pawnbroker’s – a good ‘white collar’ job that offers escape –to join the apprentices in the local factory, for the glamour of an extra shilling or two in his pocket, cigarettes and beer and taking girls to the pictures on a Saturday night. Harry ignores the warnings of Sally’s boyfriend, the older and wiser political activist Larry Meath, that most of the apprentices don’t get taken on to work at the mill proper, but are instead laid off, to be replaced by the next generation of naïve and cheap-to-pay boys. And so Harry joins the ranks of the hollow-eyed, dejected long-term unemployed - alongside his father, who he despised for his lack of work.
Father and Two Sons was bought from Lowry by the Stockport-based businessman Monty Bloom, who specialized in buying up failing businesses, making them viable, then selling them on – and so a man as familiar with the life of the urban poor as Lowry was. They met in the latter half of the 1950s, just as Lowry was finding fame, after decades of being overlooked (it is one of the ironies of his career, however, than in the 1930s, when he couldn’t even get an exhibition in Manchester, he was showing his work at the Salon in Paris). Visitors to Lowry’s new home in Mottram-in-Longdendale often wanted to commission a ‘classic’ industrial cityscape from him. Lowry would send them away, asking them to come back another day, by which time he had found something painted years ago that would suffice. Monty Bloom, on the other hand, was interested in what the artist was doing at the time, these ‘grotesques’ as the artist called them (unable to come up with a better term) that are some of the most unique and startling works in the history of 20th century British art. Bloom’s support – he bought hundreds of works – allowed Lowry to extend himself in these final two decades, creating a compelling body of work that is both deeply challenging yet simply concerned with the everyday; confrontational yet suffused with compassion.
Whilst Lowry’s paintings are more about a world remembered, his ‘landscapes’ often fictional constructions built out of different details of the towns of the industrial North-West that he knew like the back of his hand. And yet there is something absolutely real about them – real to those who remember the mills before they became swish apartment blocks; who remember the ‘factory fortnight’ holidays where whole towns decamped to cold seaside resorts; who remember being paid weekly, in cash in small brown envelopes, and taking them home half-empty after settling up various lines of tick. And real, too, for anyone living today in a strange and unforgiving city.
Lowry may have called his later works his ‘grotesques’, but he knew that to be the way others might see them. If pressed on this subject matter, he would simply invite you to jump on a bus from Piccadilly Gardens out to one of Manchester’s suburbs or linked towns. Within half an hour he would have pointed out individuals who would have made subjects for fifty paintings. Yet they are never subjects, as such: Lowry has too much compassion for that. He is no flaneur looking for a bit of grit. His people are not ‘grotesques’, more like fellow-travellers. They are him and they are us.
The present work will be exhibited at Sotheby's New York:
Fri, 30 Oct 15: 10:00 AM – 05:00 PM
Sat, 31 Oct 15: 10:00 AM – 05:00 PM
Sun, 01 Nov 15: 01:00 PM – 05:00 PM
Mon, 02 Nov 15: 10:00 AM – 05:00 PM
Tue, 03 Nov 15: 10:00 AM – 05:00 PM
Wed, 04 Nov 15: 10:00 AM – 05:00 PM
Thu, 05 Nov 15: 10:00 AM – 01:00 PM
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