More than a Matchstick Man

When I was eleven years old I was interviewed by the local Girls High School , in order to chase a scholarship place. I walked into an imposing entrance hall,
once a grand villa owned by a rich industrialist, where a large print of a Lowry was being shown. We were asked to study it, and were later questioned on
our feelings about the painting. I remember how muted the colours were, and how bleak I felt the vision was. The day before yesterday was my mother’s 
81st birthday, and as luck would have it, our local university is showing a Lowry exhibition at its gallery. Nottingham University is a marvellously sited
campus university, and boasts facilities which it shares with the local community. One of these is the wonderful Djanogly gallery, where temporary
exhibitions are given house room, and offer excellent free opportunities to broaden the mind. Since I remember that my mother had remarked that Lowry
was a favourite of hers, all those years ago, when I was relating the occasion of the interview to her, age 11, I decided that would be her birthday treat.

It was a treat, but one that left strong, curious unsettling feelings and I was interested to find out more about the man who became one of the most popular
British painters today. An artist that has created a legacy of ‘Matchstick men, and matchstick cats and dogs’, and is studied in primary and secondary
schools across the country. He is in the British consciousness as a cherished emblem of industrial Britain, during it’s day of heavy manufacturing industry.
As I walked around the exhibition, I began to feel so much more about the man. His paintings that spring to mind are often populated with a business of
daily life, coming back from the mill, or a school playground at pick up time, and these paintings are alive with the reality of the daily round. Character
springs out from these strangely depicted people, and wonderfully drawn dogs. But the overall feeling I get from them , is his distance from them. He is an
observer, and a detached one. He is always on the outside , looking in. It feels that there is a strange acceptance by the artist, that humanity is a throng,
where life is, but that he cannot join in.
When I read about the man, he is withdrawn, private, remote. For 42 years he worked for a property company, after drifting into office work, his art being
something separate from his living. Earning a living involved Lowry traipsing the poorest streets in Manchester, day after day, taking in the stories and
environments of the people he was coming across . Hardship would have been the backdrop to Lowry’s daily experience, though his own family were
reasonably placed. His father died, leaving him to care for his bed-ridden mother for the following seven years, which cannot have been easy. “She did not
understand my painting, but she understood me and that was enough.” When she died, Lowry was left in a state in which he lacked interest, and hope. His
painting was his salvation, and he was self-aware enough to recognize his isolation, “Had I not been lonely none of my works would have happened”.
Looking at his paintings of heads, the sense of deep despair is self-evident. In these paintings, which are not portraits per se, they represent a human being,
but are not of a person, the eyes are tormented, the expressions woeful in their lack of engagement. They are horrifying in that they testify his experience of
being human. I know what this artist was seeing, when he looked on the world, and it makes me deeply sad.
The painting I was drawn to time and again, was a wonderful representation of the sea meeting the sky, an imperceptible meeting at the horizon, a painting
that identifies the nothingness of existence, but in a way that is not bleak. It is emptiness, with acceptance. It is the opposite of the pictures where he is
filling the canvas with characters and things, and soot, and grime, and smoke and bells ringing, chattering mothers. It is paradoxical, that to me, this is the
one picture that has hope within it. I left the exhibition moved, my own existence mirrored back to me in ways that unnerved me. I will be back since it
continues until February. That’s here, Nottingham, England. Well worth a visit.

Thanks to this site, where I found pictures and bio.

This is the seascape, which youmight not have identified as a Lowry. There are landscapes too, that show his interest in spaces, nature, landscape.  One that drew my eye, seemed to represent the sensuality of a reposing human body.  He was a man that saw the world very much from his own perspective, and he reinforces this perspective by imposing his view onto landscape, and even onto human faces.  It is as though he needs to feel his own existence by creating it visually.  He became concerned about whether his art would be appreciated in time, and asked time and again, “But will I live?”

His own life seems to have been poured into his art. They are one.




3 thoughts on “More than a Matchstick Man

  1. Andy Parkinson

    Very interesting post, great story. I will certainly be going to have look at the exhibition, I think he is a massivley underated painter. Thanks for bringing my attention to the seascape that I would not have identified as a Lowry.


  2. anne corr

    i am so glad you will go, it really is worth it. there’s a good cafe in the theatre building opposite side of the little road. Where the car park is. I think its nicer than the one in the gallery! And it benefits from a picture window of a lakeside view (the boating lake in front of the university)



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