Lot Essay `Most of my land and townscape is composite. Made up; part real and part imaginary ... bits and pieces of my home locality. I don't even know I'm putting them in. They just crop up on their own, like things do in dreams'
Iron Works, 1941,depicts a sprawling industrial landscape in which the River Irwell has flooded its banks and left deep pools of water for Lowry's people to walk around as they go about their daily habits in a heavily industrialised landscape. The dank pools and blackened vegetation around the houses threaten to swallow up some of the terraces which remain standing in the gloom. The red smoke that billows from the seven factory chimneys reminds the viewer that this heavily polluted landscape adds to the lot of the dwellers, some of whose terraced houses are positioned at angles from the iron work`s warehouses and towers. Small figures teem in bunches towards the factory buildings, their daily commute requiring them to trudge across a sluggish plain, polluted by the factory debris that hangs around them. Lowry's tiny figures are emphatically dwarfed by the enormous buildings that dominate the horizon, the complexity of the different shapes and angles of the jumble of industrialised structures serving to make the viewer believe that these monuments to labour are spreading like some sort of uncontrollable behemoth. Lowry's wartime industrials are the most compelling works in his oeuvre and set him apart from any other painter in his ability to create beauty and harmony from such unpromising material.
Lowry's depiction of the urban landscape during this period, and his treatment of the present work, is defined in Michael Howard's description of The Lake (1937; City of Salford Collection), as `Like a medieval manuscript painting, its dark upper margin reveals a sense of closure and unnatural luminosity that illuminates the distant, but ceaselessly active, town. The town hall, the civic buildings, the mines, factories and mills are caricaturally identified: activity is everywhere, the business of production unaware of its imminent dissolution. Industrial activity is seen as a parody of real purposeful activity, a means of filling the emptiness with noise and bustle to simulate a purposeful existence. This is the hub of the Waste Land, a dystopia, a bad place. The lake, at the empty centre of the painting, is home to rotting hulks, mute witnesses to fading industrial power; their commercial heyday has passed, and now they no longer bear goods but are the playthings of children. Around it stand small groups of anonymous, diminutive figures, redundant and acitivity-less; except for one, who turns and makes his way out of the picture space. The desolate shore is punctuated by palings and broken-down buildings like something left over from a gothic horror novel. Like the palings in the foreground, with their disturbing resemblance to gravestones, these are significant but peripheral details. It is the central expanse of milky white, opaque substance that commands attention and fills the centre with its emptiness, a fitting reposte to the useless activity depicted in the upper band of the picture. Here all is doomed to sink, fail and disappear. Lowry's painting stands against the many agendas for utopia attempted by the avant-garde years before the Second World War. Man's belief in the perfectibility of the world through reason, science and technology - in short, `progress' - has been found to be a sham.
What is the value, Lowry seems to be saying, of all this industrial frenzy in the face of our major spiritual concerns, our metaphysical loneliness and our disregard for our fellow man and the environment in which we live? Lowry's art, although informed by literature, theatre, film and art, is essentially a response to his private experience and he remains, like Blake, profoundly personal and inimitable. He shares with many the acceptance of `nothingness' as the source of true reality.
The city in Lowry's work is a place where natural relationships are impossible to sustain. Man's fragile identity with the natural rhythms and cycles has been broken by the industrial processes and his world is reduced to a timeless, seasonless, weatherless place. His paintings are articulate testimonies to such primal fears expressed through the remorseless spread of the urban fabric and the revenge of nature. What Lowry in effect presents is a denial of nature, the terrifying vacuum behind the apparent solidity of buildings and purposeful actions. All man's structures are temporary, and one day will disappear into the flake-white nothingness from which they were created' (Lowry a Visionary Artist, Salford, 2000, pp. 157-58).
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