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A generous view of industry

LAURENCE STEPHEN LOWRY certainly achieved his aim: to show that the industrial landscape of northern England, particularly of Lancashire, was a fit subject for a painter. It was in 1909, when he was 22, that straitened circumstances forced his parents to move - he was their only child and lived at home - from a pleasantly residential part of Manchester to Pendlebury.

Pendlebury, in his words, was ``a suburb of Salford and as industrial as could be. At first I didn't like it at all. It took me six years. ... Then I got used to it; after that interested; I wanted to depict it. I couldn't recollect that anyone else had ever done it before. Finally I became obsessed by it, and I did nothing else for 30 years....''

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To anyone at all familiar with the various industrial landscapes of the north of England - and the word ``landscape'' is apt because these mill towns often developed among steep hills-and-dales that gave them a unique topographical stamp - paintings like ``The Steps'' and ``Yorkshire Landscape'' seem to have grasped something absolutely typical about them.

Rows of mill workers' houses lined up along curved, climbing streets, factory buildings with endless processions of rectangular windows, weaving sheds with a continuous zigzag of pitched roofs, and a great many tall chimneys pointing vertically out of the murky conglomeration - much more in number than the occasional Victorian church spires also pointing skyward.

And then, closer at hand, the steps up between the houses, climbing like locks on a canal, multilevel paved playgrounds for children at a loose end, platforms where adults stop to catch their breath and chatter, virtual mountains to be scaled laboriously after you've been down to the shop.

Lowry's depictions of this world, for all their northern matter-of-factness, are by no means unrelievedly grim. For one thing, nostalgia hangs in the air, and nostalgia can turn the most appalling conditions into something surprisingly warm that invites affection. After all, even the worst urban wastelands spawned by the Industrial Revolution were - perforce - home for thousands of human beings.

Though Lowry lived all his life in Lancashire, he did stray occasionally into neighboring Yorkshire, and Cheshire, and even, later, into Wales, to find inspiration for his art.

``For a great many years,'' he told art critic Edwin Mullins, ``when I was very active, I used to visit all the industrial towns and stop a couple of nights in each. Huddersfield in particular I'd go back to. And I always gravitated to the poorer areas. It wasn't that I felt sorry for those people; they were just as happy as anyone else, and certainly as happy as I was. I didn't draw there - Oh, I might have made quick sketches - I just went and looked round, and thought. When it came to painting I really liked to do imaginary compositions in my room. I used to start in the morning in front of a big white canvas, and I'd say: `I don't know what I'm going to do with you, but by the evening I'll have something on you.'''

His pictures actually do look as if they grew in this way, particularly those with accumulations of people in them - schoolgirls sitting on the walls with their thin pink legs dangling; hefty-booted, cloth-capped workmen slouching, hands in pockets, as they head off to the pub or the betting shop; spidery, up-to-no-good dogs playing around the place as if they didn't belong to anyone in particular; women pushing prams overloaded with babies.

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There is humor in all of this lively human activity, as well as a kind of folksy realism: These characteristic figures, although sometimes Lowry sardonically caricatured them, are mainly evidence of the surging resilience of ordinary working people. Their vigorous charm - they have something in common with Bruegel's figures of 16th-century peasants - doubtless explains the immense popular appeal of Lowry's art in Britain, at least in the later years of his career. Today that popularity shows no sign of abating, though he is still not very well known outside his own country.

And yet popularity was not something he looked for. What he was fond of emphasizing in interviews was his loneliness. Probably he exaggerated it a bit, though he was a loner. The character he gave himself was not always entirely accurate; perhaps it was even a bit of a trap. Nobody knew, for instance, until after his death that he had been for his entire working life employed as a rent collector. His story was that he had scarcely been able to make ends meet, because he had done nothing but paint and had sold very few pictures. It is true that recognition and success came very late.

But apparently he was afraid that he might be thought a mere amateur if he had let it be known he had painted for many years only after work. In fact, the truth makes one admire his tenacity and seriousness even more.

Nothing about his work suggests amateurism - though he has often been described as a ``self-taught'' or even ``naive'' artist. He was original and different, certainly, and there is a kind of deliberate stiffness or at least an apparent simplicity about his figures in particular which cannot be described as an easy grace. But his subject hardly lends itself to smooth, facile treatment: It asks for the kind of rough honesty he gave it.

He was also very sparing in his use of color. He did everything with only five colors - black, white, red, ocher, and blue. He worked out a style that is instantly recognizable. It is tempting to call it a kind of formula. But it was not merely efficient, it could also carry a considerable strength of feeling and made it possible for him to more or less reinvent his subject matter in his own terms. Taking his subjects into his imagination this way, and presenting them in a telling pictorial language, gave his art a much more potent kind of chemistry than realistic depiction would have done.

It has been pointed out frequently that instead of working on a dark, grimy, soot-laden base, as an industrial painter might be expected to do, he found out early on (spurred by some friendly criticism) that a white base - which would yellow warmly over the years - gave him much more scope. His figures become quirky and intense silhouettes against all this whiteness, which, in turn, acts like a heavy fog into which his terraces and mills and chimneys and hills can disappear, shrouded in an atmosphere thickened by distance. This was true to the facts, anyway, in the years before Britain's northern cities were made to use smokeless fuels. The lack of shadows in his paintings was as much a comment on the impossibility of sunlight penetrating this ubiquitous white pall as it was a deliberate stylistic ploy. Shadows would have probably weakened the punch of his compositions.

The city of Salford, whose art gallery owns more of Lowry's work than any other, staged an immensely popular exhibition celebrating the artist's centenary year. This show, which began in Salford, travels through England as follows: Middlesbrough, Dec. 5 to Jan. 17; Coventry, Jan. 23 to Feb. 28; Stoke, March 17 to April 17; Exeter, April 23 to May 29. It will be seen at the Barbican Art Gallery in London later in 1988. It is hoped that the show will be staged after that in Japan. The two pictures shown on today's Home Forum page were included in ``A Centenary Tribute'' exhibition at the Crane Kalman Gallery, London, in November.

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