Mix and match

L S Lowry - Tom Rosenthal on the art and the man

Having watched the Lowry Centre grow over the past five years from Salford's wasteland to Michael Wilford's silvery rival to Bilbao's Guggenheim, it is still faintly disconcerting to have to call it just The Lowry, a title expensively researched by marketers as the one with the widest appeal. (Would the same sort of multi-purpose arts centre in Stratford have to be called The Shakespeare?)

Since its opening last year, the art gallery has matured into a beautifully lit, multi-level exhibition space, which currently boasts no fewer than four shows. There are western-style kabuki lithographs by Paul Binnie to accompany a visit from the Kabuki Theatre. There is a superb retrospective, "On Home Ground", of the Guardian's great photographer Denis Thorpe (published as a book by the Lowry Press, £17.95). In this exhibition, there is a marvellous shot of Thelwell Viaduct, which crosses the Manchester Ship Canal. When Thorpe took the picture, it wasn't yet open for motor traffic, but was available to mere pedestrians, so that we get a unique combination of the vast, soaring arch of the M6 covered with multitudinous humans taking the peaceful stroll soon to be denied them for ever.

Appropriately enough, Thorpe was a zealous photographer of L S Lowry himself, and there are some excellent portraits of the artist, as well as the photographs that Thorpe took inside Lowry's house after he died and before the Securicor men stripped it. Thorpe's Lowry photos also figure largely in the film, on view in a small side gallery, entitled Meet Mr Lowry - a strangely haunting, ghostly introduction to Salford's genius, with a voice-over culled from some of his recorded interviews.

The other two exhibitions are both well matched and thought-provoking. "Unseen Landscapes: artists and wilderness" is The Lowry's first show combining work by Lowry with that of other artists. The fourth show, from Salford's permanent collection, asks what makes a Lowry painting special and why people want to own one. In a sense, the landscape show offers one of the best answers because, at a stroke, it demolishes one of the many objections of the unconverted, namely that Lowry was an amateur, a naive and unprofessional Sunday painter who happened to appeal to the hoi polloi, which is why he was bound to be scorned.

Leaving aside his high prices - £2m for Going to the Match - and his presence in all our major museum collections, displaying him alongside the likes of Edward Burra and Paul Nash emphasises not only how sophisticated an artist he was, and how inventive, but also his wide range as a pure landscape painter. Both Burra and Nash are represented by major works, particularly Nash's Landscape of the Vernal Equinox (1943) and his stark, earlier painting The Shore (1923). Nash in no way overshadows Lowry, whose Stone Circle, Cornwall (1959) is eerie. The sombre black and grey slabs, slicing the horizon formed by the bare green field in the foreground and the classic, subtle, Lowry-white sky (with its dozens of shades of that fugitive colour), are as sinister as any of his belching smokestacks - more so, in fact, because of their innocent, rural context.

For the neo-Freudians among those who speculate about Lowry's sexuality, or lack of it, his 1936 landscape The Landmark is perfect fodder. The landmark itself is a tall, slender obelisk acting as the erect, elongated nipple of a distant hill, which is itself a large and flawless breast. Lowry's landscapes, entirely devoid of people, are also a refutation of the shallow view that he could paint only "matchstick men".

There are indeed hundreds, if not thousands, of matchstick men, women and children in the adjoining room. There are hundreds in the crowd approaching the football stadium in Going to the Match, which Lowry painted for a competition run by the Football Association and which is now owned by the Professional Football Association. But if you study the matchstick men, you see that, far from being stereotypes, they are painstakingly individual, as are all real crowds when properly examined.

Perhaps the essence of Lowry's appeal is his wry approach to humankind, his sense of the odd and the ridiculous, his steady gaze, through jaundice-coloured spectacles, at our physical and mental foibles. When he does larger, more elaborate human figures, as in The Funeral Party (see illustration), he combines his sure handling of groups with his relentless ability to record idiosyncratic individuality. Against a white background, he parades nine black-clad grotesques, each one almost fearlessly caricatured and characterised. They are funny, but they are also sad, and the way they are thrust into stark relief by the white, featureless background makes it a desolate assemblage of no-hopers, striving, as at all funerals, for respectability. Their clothes are almost smart, the women the habituees of a dozen shabby cafes. Their red lips match the out-of-place - very Lowry, that - red tie of the man in profile on the right, out of step with the others who, with the exception of a little boy, are facing squarely and blankly to the front.

Lowry always concealed his real feelings and personality from those he did not know and trust. But in the paintings at Salford, as in so much of his work, he revealed the sharply observant intelligence and absolute mastery of oil paint that always animated this most solitary and quintessentially English artist.

For details of current exhibitions, contact The Lowry, Salford, on 0161 876 2000

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