Absence makes the heart grow fonder

Old jokes home…

Jazz fan: “listen to the notes he’s not playing”

Bored audience member: “I could do that at home”

The Lowry exhibition at the Tate Britain is as powerful for its absences, for what it doesn’t show, as it is for what it does show.

In his painting ‘A football match’ Lowry leaves an enormous amount out.

Most obviously, the canvas is very white. This gives the sense of an absence of green. There is no rolling British countryside just the urban industrial landscape.

There are other gaps too. The gaps and spaces between the people queueing to go into the match. These people aren’t just randomly standing around, they have formed a pattern, much like the pattern formed by the workers queueing to clock in at the mill or factory. The industrial world structures every aspect of their life, leisure and work.

Perhaps most noticeably of all, there are no faces. Lowry paints crowds but he is not really part of the crowd. The people are anonymous to him as he watches them from a distance, not part of them but also not looking away.

Less obviously, nowhere in the painting is there a capitalist, a city planner, a stockbrocker, or any of class of people who had so much to do with creating these landscapes.

Barney Ronay’s book on the history of the football manager explains that early on in the history of the game the manager was just a fall guy. The chairmen wanted to pick the team but didn’t want the crowd to boo him, so he hired a guy to run up and down on the side of the pitch and get booed. Similarly with Lowry’s paintings we are not shown the people who were in some sense responsible for creating this world.

Finally, and for me most evocatively, the modern eye sees a different type of absence. Lowry shows a world in which streets were alive with people, a world that is lost to us now. This boisterous conviviality, full of conflict and humour, is mostly gone from modern Britain, replaced by a more atomised life where people spend, on average, nearly 3 hours a day watching tv, in their homes, and where 1 in 6 people over 50 are isolated.

Although the Tate have called the exhibition ‘the Painting of Modern Life’, in this sense we are as far removed from the world of Lowry as he was from the world of Constable

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