Why was Lowry a great artist?
The first step, as usual, is to look at his painting, and list what we see. This painting’s name is Accident.
I hope you have spent some time looking for yourself and doing your own list before you go on to read mine. It would be more interesting to compare and compete (no betting, though).
What do we see?
- industrial landscape, uniform terraced houses
- most buildings are grey of several shades (much less than 50) that makes air perspective very conventional, as if the whole scene were a theatre set. The red building attracts the eye just as much as the crowd that is congregating at the right side of the picture. It is a very clever decision to paint the building reddish, and to have the spot of accident slightly to the right. Your eye will dart back and forth, so most of what you’ll focus on will be the gathering crowd, just like it would be were you present there and then.
- the landscape is very geometric, with straight lines and rectangular forms, but you can still see a lot of detail at the very back (this is an obvious influence by Pre-Raphaelites whose attention to minor detail was a central feature of their method). The only non-geometric forms in the painting are the smoke from factory chimneys, the crowd of people, the skies, and a bit of the road in the lower left corner.
- the crowd, which is congregating to a certain spot, obviously the spot of the accident. It is a grey crowd but here and there you can spot greenish and red cardigans and coats that provide a visual measure of crowd density. The closer are the red spots to each other, the denser is the crowd. Lowry’s use of colour is clever: he uses just the right amount of colour to prevent the dense part of the crowd to merge into a single blot.
- it is also interesting how Lowry uses the size of his matchstick people to indicate where exactly the figures are positioned in terms of their distance to the viewer. None of the “sizes” is accidental, they are all painted with mathematical precision.
- As we keep looking at the painting, we begin noticing minor details: for instance that some of the doors in the red building are open with people watching the scene. People standing at the open door mirror the viewer looking at the painting. They do not rush to the scene, but they are curious about what is happening. And because Lowry made sure your eye travels to those people (painting the house red and changing the colour in its windows), you unavoidably become connected to the scene from the inside. I’ve marked the elements below:
Now, the question is why he painted the accident scene in this way? To approach it, we need to know that he mostly painted indoors (very unlike Impressionists), from memory, and would gradually build up an artificial city out of the real bits and pieces that he remembered or knew well.
This is what he said himself about accidents:
“Accidents interest me… What fascinates me is the people they attract. The patterns those people form, an atmosphere of tension when something’s happened. Where there’s a quarrel there’s always a crowd.”
Conflict is the key to understanding
Where is the conflict in this painting? Lowry’s quote above contains the clue, even though there is a lot of humble pretension in Lowry’s statements on art and himself, as an artist. He once said, “You don’t need brains to be a painter, just feelings.” This is obviously a grandstand play: feelings alone don’t make an artist pay that much attention to proportion, figure spacing, and composition that we can see in this painting. It’s the brain that does it.
The conflict is between the changing shape and pattern of the crowd “generated” by the accident and the unchangeable, geometrical, lifeless forms of the urban environment. It is a conflict of a living entity (crowd) versus the industrial place where the crowd “lives” and “works”, an artistic conflict of shapes, and a philosophical conflict of modern living and dead matter.
If you want to look at a few other typical conflicts to understand the Lowry’s conflict better, press “3” at the bottom of the page, if you want to read on about Lowry, press page “4”.