by Holly Lawley
Last summer, I visited The Lowry’s permanent exhibition, LS Lowry: The Art & The Artist. Encapsulating a bizarre mixture of distant and recent past, present, and future, the trip has surprisingly continued to stay with me. I had visited the gallery as a child but Lowry’s artwork was most recognisable to me as having furnished the walls of my childhood home with prints of his Northern industrial landscapes – miles (and years) away from my suburban Midlands upbringing. Exploring Lowry’s Salford works further, I mapped the routes I had wandered earlier that day and would go on to explore afterwards. However, navigating the rooms away from the familiar scenes of the Industrial Room, I found myself surprised at the depth and variation in his work. Entering the Portraits Room and Seascapes Room especially, I was left disorientated when abruptly shifted from the busy industrial landscapes, associated with childhood, to the serene and almost lonely seascapes and portraits to which I had no previous attachment.
Although accustomed to the typical ‘Lowryscapes’ that express ‘the bleakness, the obsolete shabbiness, the grimy fogboundness of northern industrial England’ (John Rothenstei, director of Tate Gallery, 1938-1964), these industrial scenes were completely alien in both landscape and era. Whilst I found a nostalgic familiarity in the industrial works, I was surprised at the emotion of one seascape in particular that induced what some – like Ben Lerner – would mock as the ‘profound experience of art’. Stood in front of The Sea (1963), its faded simplicity and vast emptiness perfectly conveyed the loneliness Lowry was attempting to convey. Of course, the sea contains within it an unpredictability that could unexpectedly turn harsh and ferocious. Nonetheless, in the middle of Salford Quays, under the artificial light of the gallery, I found the same sense of calm found when actually visiting the sea.
Lowry’s seascapes purposely provide nothing for you to latch onto – he will ‘perhaps add a tiny boat if [he] must’. Their emptiness even attracted hostility from councillors and members of the public in Salford for a ‘lack of subject matter’. But, unlike the specificity of his industrial landscapes, his seascapes become entirely universal and transcendental – Lowry himself comments how his seascapes “don’t really exist”. So how could a painting, that arguably contains ‘nothing’, produce such an immense response? The argument surrounding ‘nothingness’ has haunted abstract art, but variations on the seascape have existed since Ancient Greece, though popularised as what we recognise as seascapes today in the 16th century. The ‘profound experience of art’ of the empty seascape, arguably occurs when realising the paradoxical enormity of the subject matter. The Sea is boundless and allows you to fill the scene with your own feelings of longing, escapism, wanderlust, loneliness, fear. Stood in front of the painting, latent feelings come to the surface as you witness The Sea truly become your own.