The exhibition of L. S. Lowry's work at the Djanogly Art Gallery, Lakeside, the University of Nottingham's Public Arts Centre & Museum (which ends 5 February 2012) provides an excellent antidote to anyone's notion (many years' ago trumpeted by a fatuous pop song) that Lowry was a painter of whimsical scenes in the Manchester area.
In fact the cover above adverting the event, although perhaps slightly disturbing in itself as the subject (quite possibly a self-portrait), is nothing like as disturbing as some of the paintings. An excellent counterpoint to this portait is Head of a Man (1938), which depicts a very similar although older man in a very different way: the neat jacket, tie and pinned collar are replaced by a rather untidy looking coat and scarf, the neat hair has become a little dishevelled, and the cleanshaven appearance by a moustache and stubble.
Much more importantly, the mélange of wide-eyed innocence and a face staring into a possible future void becomes not just a world-weary stare into presentday nothingness, the pronounced red of the eyes and the nose and the lines and the frown and tauter lips are not just an expression of the ravages of time and a knowledge that our lot in life has to be accepted: this is a detailed depiction of existential anguish. Lowry had for some years looked after his difficult hypochondriacal mother, and the portrait was made the year before she died in 1939, when Lowry reached a crisis point.
But, as the interprepretation notes make clear at the sides of many of the paintings (and pencil sketches in another room in the exhibition), a great number of his paintings from the 1920s through the 1950s express mental anguish. When we look at Lowry's works, we are very often looking at works of alienation, made by an outsider representing the world of the outsider. Here we have itimations of death, seen with the cemetery in the foreground or background, his mother's empty bed, or more metaphorically as a black ship moving toward the viewer. Here we have a tableau of people crippled in many ways, Breughel-like figures, the unemployed, houses isolated by water, landscapes with no sign of life, almost surreal shapes, paintings of horizon and sea or the countryside with no suggestion of human life.
And the human life Lowry shows, those smoky factory scenes with active figures in the foreground, his famous 'matchstickmen'? How much human warmth and companionship do we see? Like everyone, Lowry said many contradictory things, but he spoke of automatons, people rushing with intent, purpose, but that no one is free.
No. Throughout this exhibition — again and again — I saw the main subject of L. S. Lowry's canvases as not so much external to himself as repesentational of the prison of his mind. Thoroughly recommended. And admission is free.