«Societies 2013, 3, 332–347; doi:10.3390/soc3040332 OPEN ACCESS societies ISSN 2075-4698 Article The Haunting of L.S. ...»
Societies 2013, 3, 332–347; doi:10.3390/soc3040332
The Haunting of L.S. Lowry: Class, Mass Spectatorship and the
Image at The Lowry, Salford, UK
School of Cultural Studies and Humanities, Leeds Metropolitan University, Broadcasting Place A214,
Woodhouse Lane, Leeds, LS2 9EN, UK; E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org;
Tel.: +44-0113-812-5721 Received: 4 September 2013; in revised form: 16 October 2013 / Accepted: 17 October 2013 / Published: 18 October 2013 Abstract: In a series of momentary encounters with the surface details of The Lowry Centre, a cultural venue located in Salford, Greater Manchester, UK, this article considers the fate of the image evoked by the centre’s production and staging of cultural experience.
Benjamin’s notion of ‘aura’ as inimical to transformations of art and cultural spectatorship is explored, alongside its fatal incarnation in Baudrillard’s concept of ‘simulation’.
L.S. Lowry, I argue, occupies the space as a medium: both as a central figure of transmission of the centre’s narrative of inclusivity through cultural regeneration, and as one who communes with phantoms: remainders of the working-class life and culture that once occupied this locale. Through an exploration of various installations there in his name, Lowry is configured as a ‘destructive character’, who, by making possible an alternative route through its spaces, refuses to allow The Lowry Centre to insulate itself from its locale and the debt it owes to its past.
Keywords: aura; simulation; The Lowry; cultural regeneration; haunting; class I have been called a painter of Manchester workpeople. But my figures are not exactly that. They are ghostly figures, which tenant these courts and lane-ways and which seem to me so beautiful. L.S. Lowry (1975) The ghost is not simply a dead or missing person, but a social figure, and investigating it can lead to the dense site where history and subjectivity make social life. The ghost or the apparition is one form by which something is lost, or barely visible, or seemingly not there to our supposedly well-trained eyes, makes itself known or apparent to us in its own way, of course. The way of the ghost is haunting, and haunting is a very particular way of knowing what has happened or is happening. Being haunted draws us affectively, Societies 2013, 3 333 sometimes againstour will and always a bit magically, into the structure of feeling of a reality we come to experience, not as cold knowledge, but as a transformative recognition. Avery Gordon (1997) Manchester was the scene of Lowry’s loneliness. It gave a guise of locality to the phantoms that passed before his eyes. It imbibed him with the particular melancholy that blows in off the Pennines. Howard Jacobson (2007)
1. Introduction: Cities and Phantoms In the winter of 1926, Walter Benjamin, German-Jewish cultural commentator and literary critic, visited Moscow and was heartened at the sight of children and workers inhabiting galleries and museums with a new-found confidence, instead of the guilt-ridden look of the thief so familiar to the German proletariat in similar cultural venues . What is central to what follows is this observation of Benjamin’s that space has the potential for transformation depending on how it is inhabited.
The modern city as phantasmagoric, as imbued with the ghostly shimmer emanating from the world of commodities, is a concept Benjamin takes from Marx in his exploration of the ‘dreamhouses’ of nineteenth-century capitalism: arcades, railway stations, winter gardens 1. Benjamin writes: “The world dominated by its phantasmagorias…is ‘modernity’” (, p. 26). As Hetherington reminds us, the ghost is a figural revelation eschewing the route of rational discourse. It speaks not in words but images (, p. 65). Such an understanding, as with Benjamin’s work, is also to privilege the minor within the everyday, or rather the everyday’s ability to provoke an unexpected reconfiguration beyond empirical fact: to prompt a re-ordering of vision that allows us to see differently what we already thought we knew.
This re-ordering of vision, to complicate what is before the eyes, is central to L.S. Lowry’s art. His famous cityscapes teem with figures, structures and stories, composites of the North-West of England he encountered on his daily perambulations as a rent collector in the mid-twentieth century.
These ‘dreamscapes’ were his attempts to capture on canvas a life he saw ebbing away before his eyes:
modern, urban, industrial working-class life and culture. An outsider, by virtue of his class position, his bachelor status and his day-job, Lowry, at the margins of this scene, became its best-known painter.
But this renown came late in his life and perhaps most significantly after his death in 1976.
Thirty-seven years after his death, Lowry is once more the focus of media attention. A recent swathe of articles have been written about the artist reassessing his legacy to coincide with the 2013 major retrospective of his work at Tate Britain [5–7], and an exhibition of ‘unseen’ Lowry paintings at the eponymous cultural venue: The Lowry, Salford, UK (Figure 1). He is poised on a threshold, a familiar site for a rent-collector; precariously balanced, knocking on the art establishment’s door once more. But if we explore an earlier attempt at his canonization, at The Lowry, we find that L.S. Lowry is not so easily invited in. He rather inhabits the building as a medium, in both senses of the word: as an official figure through whom the centre’s story and ambitions for cultural regeneration are transmitted, and as one who communes with phantoms: a friend of ghosts, zombies and ghouls. L.S. Lowry, then, is a disruptive and destructive presence, one who allows the past to speak.
Figure 1. The Lowry, Salford.
Source: CC-BY-NC-SA by mrrobertwade.
2. Melancholy: The Modern Mood Howard Jacobson, in the second annual Lowry lecture, describes L.S. Lowry as a lonely figure, ‘imbibed [by] the particular melancholy that blows in off the Pennines’ . Manchester and its environs is the source of this mood. But this is not a mood unfamiliar to other places, other cities.
Indeed, Benjamin discovers in Baudelaire’s poetry melancholy (‘spleen’) configured as the mood of urban modernity . As the particular forlorn longing that accompanies the experience of the vast metropolis in all its horror and intoxication, it affected nineteenth-century Paris as much as it did twentieth-century Manchester. For Benjamin it is a mood that clings equally to other European cities under the thrall of capitalism with its constant parade of the novel and the innovative with the pall of the always-the-same. Yet it is within this maelstrom, within the social and cultural formations of everyday life, we might locate ‘chips of Messianic time’ ; threshold moments to different, other futures, which might still be realized. Melancholy is such a threshold state, for Benjamin, one that might propel those in its sway to transformative encounters: with prostitutes; collar studs; snow globes;
Charlie Chaplin films; Mickey Mouse cartoons and other ‘heroes’ and ephemera of quotidian city living. Fleeting, fragmentary experiences, throwaway, disposable knick-knacks; all the more prized because of their fragility and the inevitability of their passing. For French sociologist and professional ‘Cassandra’ Jean Baudrillard, melancholy is a dead-end street. Modernity, for him, ‘ends with a yawn’.
The novelty wears off. Consumption becomes the organising principle of social life, a life that is thoroughly aestheticised in the hermetically sealed coffin of the ‘hyperreal’ . Cultural spectatorship becomes a Disneyland processing of bodies through space; pop culture is infantile and infantilizing, we are trapped in safety reins. When Andy Warhol first forces paint through a stencil his screen prints of food items and popular celebrities function as a critical commentary on post-war Western consumer capitalism. When Warhol is producing the same prints thirty years later, the repetition of the same joke short-circuits any critical potential: bad copies of bad copies on a never-ending loop. The conspiracy of art is complete . Popular culture offers no transformative moment: it cannot be paused or interrupted from within. For Baudrillard, Benjamin’s fragile faith in the messianic potential of the Societies 2013, 3 335 everyday peters out, hastened by the image technologies of late capitalism. And thus, for Baudrillard, we are left instead with melancholy not as catalyst to other states but as ironic fascination; an orientation to the present best captured in his 1980s travelogue America  where the only thing for it is to stare and sneer. The intention, at best, is disturbing the glittering empty surfaces of postmodern consumer culture whilst hoping for a symbolic ‘abreaction’ , an event to push the system to its limit. An event without precedent that reorders the world beyond recognition, not willed, not waited for, not expected, but nonetheless inevitable. An event such as 9/11 fits the bill .
In what follows I consider how cultural venues such as The Lowry, as catalysts to urban change, might facilitate or constrain the potentially transformative encounters that so fascinate Benjamin about the metropolitan scene, and so depress Baudrillard about contemporary cultural spectatorship.
Melancholy, of course, is also the mood of haunting, a longing for a past that can never return, a future that might never come, and a burning dissatisfaction with the now. And ghosts, of course, are also abreactions, unseemly tellers of forgotten truths; fragile figures of disturbance and dispossession. Let’s proceed, then, to explore The Lowry with L.S. Lowry and his spectres.
3. Going to the Match, Going to The Lowry
The day is overcast and rather gloomy. I’m sure the rain isn’t far away. The winter chill is evidenced by the figures who hurry through the vast expanse of space towards the ground like arrows;
bent almost double as if to ward off the wind’s icy fingers. Hats of various styles: flat caps, bowlers and trilbies, cover their heads, while scarves and gloves offer further protection and a splash of colour.
In the distance, the factory chimneys belch out their plumes of smoke and the church spire towers over the rows of redbrick terraced houses. To the right is an elevated figure, a soapbox beneath his feet to raise him above the crowd that has gathered. It’s hard to say if he’s a trade unionist, a missionary or merely a programme seller. There aren’t many women, I notice. A few are dotted here and there but even they are outnumbered by the dogs; stick-like figures that appear, because of their slender shape, to mirror their master’s gait, bending into the wind. The dogs outnumber even the children. Directly ahead looms the football ground. Its rhomboid silhouette dominates the scene and its stands appear already to be brimming with spectators. At the very top of the stand, on the right hand side, it is possible to make out a row of small, bird-like figures that, after a moment, reveal themselves to be another line of spectators. Feeling brave, perhaps, sitting with legs swinging atop the highest edge of the stand, taking in, not the best view of the match, but certainly a bird’s eye view of the surrounding area. And this surrounding area is formed of the leitmotifs of mid-twentieth century, working-class, urban life, captured on canvas by its most eminent painter: L.S. Lowry. As I step away from the painting, I read the card mounted on the wall to the left: Going to the Match (1953) (Figure 2). The card further reveals that the image is a painting of football spectators making their way to a match at Burnden Park in Bolton. I shiver in sympathy with the figures in the painting, chilled to the core by the aggressive air-conditioning, aimed, one supposes, at preserving the artworks and preventing their deterioration so that future visitors, future generations even, might enjoy their nostalgic, homely, cosily-wrapped depictions of the past. But this painting, indeed, any of L.S. Lowry’s art, may never have been here at all.
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Figure 2. Going to the Match, 1953. Source: author.
The inclusion of Lowry’s art was, in fact, almost an afterthought, and certainly it was not part of Stirling and Wilford’s original sketches for the site. It was only after a feasibility study had been carried out with regard to the use of the space as a gallery and the likely audience demographic researched, that the presence of visual art was considered. Salford Art Gallery already owned the L.S. Lowry collection and so a ready-made collection was within easy reach. As Myerson remarks in
Making The Lowry (2000):
Lord Cultural Resources reached the conclusion that the visual art dimension of the project needed to be reconsidered. Not only did the mainly small-scale works in the L.S. Lowry collection require an intimate sequence of custom-made galleries but there needed to be a study centre for the collection. In addition, having studied the demographics of the North-West of England, which has the highest concentration of children under 15 in the whole of Europe, Lord proposed a second gallery attraction—an interaction gallery for children and families which explored the nature of the performing and visual arts (, p. 26).
The desire to provide a space that was far removed from the hushed reverence of usual gallery atmosphere is evidenced. The fact that demographic research played such a large part in the actual design of the building suggests that the scheme’s success was crucial to the developers and the funders of the project and few chances were taken: this project had to appeal to as broad a cross-section of the local community as possible. Indeed, this reaching out to children was matched only by a reaching out to a broad spectrum of class groupings. This was to be a ‘dreamhouse’ for all. As local councillor, Bill Hinds, pointed out: “Art in this country has always been a class issue. I’ve always felt that ordinary working-class people, kids especially, have never really been encouraged to participate in art” (, p. 26).