Pondering the meaning of Northernness at The Lowry today, on discovering that they're currently running a major exhibition themed The Myth of the North.
The exhibition is strongly weighted towards the North of L.S. Lowry of course, and artists in turn influenced by him, so there's lots of mill chimney townscapes and close-ups of clog-wearing children. And also filmmakers (A Taste of Honey etc) and TV dramatists, so lots of Ena Sharples and Elsie Tanner. Mostly, then, this is about the 'North' of Salford-Manchester - and Blackpool, on which the exhibition ends. Which is ok as far as it goes, and I think I'd agree with one satisfied customer quoted as saying, “The Myth of The North exhibition was ... the best exhibition ever done in the Lowry”.
Its two main shortcomings are that it showcases the artists whose signature theme was nostalgia, at the expense of those attempting to express their vision of life in the contemporary north (a couple of Morrisey sleeve covers is not enough), and that its subject matter is almost entirely white. I was struck especially by this as I've spent the last couple of weeks walking through very mixed-race mill towns, conscious of the attendant joys and sorrows, and the last couple of days in a very cosmopolitan city (in a B&B run by an Afro-Caribbean family in a black part of town). And this afternoon The Lowry exhibition was hosting a school visit by a class of predominantly black and Asian children. Some of the young girls were excited seeing clips of ancient Corry - but for their value as historical novelties rather than their having anything to say about, or to, their own North-of-the-noughties.
But a strength of the exhibition is in its understanding of the limitations of its artists' particular perspectives; so it might valuably contribute to useful ongoing dialogues about the particular ways we choose to represent Northernness, to ourselves and to the outside (non-Northern) world (and the ways that the outside world chooses to represent us). At the beginning the exhibition makes clear an accepted critics' view of Lowry, that his works 'had little to identify them with the time in which they were painted'. Lowry's mill townscapes were nostalgic in the 1950s, as the skylines he cherished were vanishing under postwar reconstruction. 'As the landscape changed, so his interest in painting it dwindled'. Another observation about Lowry is that he always painted his landscapes from an impossible viewpoint - high up, as if hovering above the place: which might suggest something about his detatchment from his subject.
I found these criticisms valuable in helping me to consider my own perspectives on the North which I'm walking and recording, 'The Myth of The North' I'm forming by my own prejudicial views of the place. And I was most alerted by this description of the German documentary photographer Bill Brandt who was criticised for 'wandering about England with the detached curiosity of a man investigating the customs of some remote and unfamiliar tribe.' Despite this his photographs were very carefully composed, artificially crafted and manipulated pieces, which unveiled the lie about his 'detachment'. I'm walking the M62 in the hope of having my eyes opened to new things in familiar-looking places; but I must not forget that behind my eyes are a whole lot of preconceptions. Not least here this week in, of all places for a Scouser to be, Manchester...