Back in 2010, Salford was looking to continue with the renovations of the quays by adding a number of sculptures to the waterfront. The Lowry was adjacent to one of the sites, and so The Lowry had the opportunity to show the proposed designs in one of its exhibition spaces. I was working in The Lowry at the time, and I rather liked the proposals. They all had an abstracted, alien feel, weird in a good way and sure to brighten up the dingy waterfront. There was, however, one sculpture that I knew wasn’t going to get very far, one that I knew the gallery would reject wholeheartedly as it was on a subject The Lowry was trying to avoid. I took one look at it and thought “You poor thing, you never stood a chance.” not because it depicted sex, or drugs, or violence, or anything you might reasonably expect to be controversial, but because the phrase it invoked had become a dirty phrase in the gallery. The artist who designed this sculpture had decided to make a scene of abstracted people, and physically manifest the phrase “Matchstick men and matchstick cats and dogs.”
L S Lowry Piccadilly Gardens 1930
The matchstick men and matchstick cats and dogs in the popular song are a reference to the way in which Lowry depicts people and animals, as long, spindly, very basic figures that form together in flowing crowds. Lowry’s industrial landscapes are the paintings most populated with the matchstick creatures, and are - understandably - his most well know pieces, so whenever Lowry pops up as a topic of conversation, so does that bloody song. And so, while many fans try to evangelize the artist as more than his matchstalk men, and many more try to avoid the phrase wholesale, I choose to dive right into it.
Lowry is closely associated with Manchester and Manchester is closely associated with industry (among other things), it's something we are proud of and so media that depicts mancunian industry often gets elevated. Many of the prominent industrial scenes he painted are now prominent local icons, his matchstick crowds contain interesting oddities that are fun to find, and his industrial scenes are probably the easiest works of his to talk about. My latter point is backed up by the article surrounding it, hopefully.
L S Lowry An Accident 1926
When I talk about Lowry to visitors in The Manchester Art Gallery I often get the sense that they feel nostalgia for the world the scenes depict. Though Lowry’s mind was stuck in turn of the century Pendlebury the industrial scenes are deliberately muddled “I put a randomsmokestack there because I likesmokestacks and if there wasn’t one there it should’ve been.” sort of reality, and - to many - embody Manchester’s pre-renovated slums. This is the same scene Shirley Baker depicts - who is also exhibiting in The Manchester Art Gallery - and the same nostalgia she taps into, that of great period in Manchester that extended from the end of the Industrial Revolution up until the start of the renovations that swept the city in the 60s and 70s. Though many of the icons still stand the everyday aspect to the period, the aspect most people that lived through the period experienced the most, has been lost to modernization. Nostalgia is a powerful force for promoting media, paintings and art exhibitions are no exception, and with paintings so visually stimulating (which is many way of saying “strange but lovely”) it's understandable that the industrial scenes are known above the rest of his body of work.
I rather like the industrial scenes, gallery 16 is my favourite gallery to be in, and if you find a large staff member waffling breathlessly at an unsuspecting visitor in there, there is a good chance it's me. That being said I do see the more problematic side to the over-prominence of his industrial scenes. Lowry is often mockingly reduced down to his industrial works, even in his own lifetime. After his mother died he started to express exhaustion with the industrial scenes, and he started to branch out into more abstract and outright strange figure drawings. Some of these pieces are scary, others feel like the artistic equivalent of throwing your tools are creativity and seeing what sticks, and some more sexually charged pieces didn’t emerge until after his death.
Lowry was a strange man and a prolific painter, years after his death and we are still finding new and bizarre pieces. As an entrypoint, I think matchstick men is suitably quirky, but the rabbit hole is deep and it only gets stranger from there. I don’t blame people for sticking to the industry, at least you can hang that on your wall without generating a whole line of awkward questions.