Lot Essay Landscape with Figures, 1957 is a startling example of L.S.Lowry’s study of the human condition. Having built a reputation in the preceding decades for his evocative depictions of the industrial landscape with factory workers, as he progressed through the 1950s, he turned his attention increasingly to studies of the people that populated the industrial landscapes of his paintings. In a remark to Frank Mullineux, Lowry said ‘The strangest thing is that when the industrial scene passed out in reality, it passed out of my mind. I could not do it now, but I have no desire to do it now, and that would show’. The subject matter that had been a key part of his life, factories with belching chimneys, dingy streets of terraces, and dirty canals was fast disappearing, either destroyed in the Second World War, or cleared away in the frenzy of post-war development. The figure studies that Lowry chose to paint, following the landscapes, were closely observed, and in many cases included unfortunate figures, often based on individuals he would have come across in his job as a rent collector. Many can be recognised as figures that populated his industrial landscapes, and are depicted as small groups of figures, lonely individuals, set against simplistic street backdrops, sparse rooms, or, specifically in the case of the later works, large expanses of white.
In Landscape with Figures, the towering smoking chimneys, scurrying figures with heads bent, and urban industrial setting can be faintly glimpsed in the background beneath a heavy fog. They are divided from the main subject of the painting by the metal railing, that draws attention to the three standing figures and a dog, which are the primary focus of the painting. The painting seems to depict a chance encounter between a hunch-backed father and his daughter, with a tall crippled man with two sticks, and his dog. All three figures are dressed smartly, as if on a Sunday promenade, but yet the connection is missing, they seem disengaged and there is no physical contact. Each figure is facing in a different direction, as though slightly embarrassed to be seen in such close proximity. Their faces appear drawn and morose and their features simplistic, plain caricatures, in true Lowry style. The tall figure is looking directly out of the painting towards the viewer, with a surprised look on his face, as if caught in the flash of a photograph before he has time to react, and this adds to the typically disconcerting depiction of the figures, and their sense of loneliness, limited to a passing, brief greeting, but nothing more.
As with his landscapes, which are rarely, if ever, topographically accurate, Lowry's paintings of people are not just scenes of contemporary life but are heavily imbued with the artist's emotional response to them. Lowry succeeds in holding up a magnifying glass to the uncomfortable reality of the human condition and highlights the inadequacy of so many of life's social interactions. It is this combination of 'portraiture' and psychological statement that lends a timeless resonance to his work and instils so much of his essentially mundane subject matter with an uncommon profundity.
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