Figures in a Street signed and dated '1957' (lower right) oil on canvasboard 25.3 x 30.2 cm. (10 x 11 7/8 in.)
Provenance: with The Lefevre Gallery, London From the Estate of the late Lady Hellen Joseph, widow of Sir Keith, later Lord Joseph
In many ways, Lowry defies categorisation. It is his staunch independence and singularity as an artist that makes him so appealing. In a broad sense, his loose, painterly technique can be seen to be influenced by Expressionism. Lowry studied for many years at the Municipal College of Art in Manchester where Expressionism was much in favour, as taught by Adolphe Valette. This extended study also endowed Lowry with an academic training that was second to none an understanding of which underpins all his compositions.
Figures in a Street was painted at a time when Lowry was beginning to receive recognition in the Art world and when he was becoming less interested in painting scenes of frenetic activity. The number of figures here is relatively scaled down when compared to some of the industrial compositions of the 1940s that are literally teeming with figures. Here the figures walking along the street are all at the very front of the picture plane, available for intense scrutiny. In fact they are almost silhouetted against the background, increasing a sense of their individuality.
This scaling down of his subject matter has allowed Lowry to focus more on the characters themselves. Each figure is recognisably individual, defined by a certain hunch of their shoulder, the shape of their hat or the colour of their skirt. And yet they are also completely anonymous. Each appears to be lost in their own internal world, almost oblivious that there are others around them. While at first glance the painting appears to portray interaction, instead the scene is one of isolation and anonymity. This anonymity is enhanced as it becomes clear that each is walking in a unique path, a singular, purposeful, direction, be it to the left or right. Visually, this painting could be read as a stylised snapshot of city life, but it is also much more than that, it is social commentary.
A sense of repetition and ennui is conveyed by the movement of the figures who appear bound up in a routine world. Their poses suggest a certain submissiveness to this routine And yet they invite speculation about their identities, drawing us into the composition to scrutinise those within. The two men in grey are probably factory workers. The child in the red top displays an independence of spirit by turning around and glancing back along the street. It is not clear what has caught her eye. The one figure not caught up in the hustle and bustle, it would appear, is the old lady at the right of the composition who stands, somewhat bizarrely, off the pavement, in the road, lost, in what is possibly a (slightly ironic) quiet moment of reflection. Or is it that she has spotted us? The old lady faces out, directly, and it feels as if her gaze rests upon us. For a second the picture is turned in on itself, as it is we, outside of the painting, and not them, the anonymous within, who are the subject of fascination.
The setting for this street is, typically, unidentifiable. The looming forms of factories and offices are quite literally etched into the background of the canvas board. Levy wrote The highest point of genius is knowing what to leave out. It is not so much what is stated that counts, but what is not stated (M. Levy The Paintings of L.S.Lowry, London, 1978, p. 20). In this scene, Lowry presents the viewer with the very barest visual information to suggest the mighty throng of the city. The presence of the factories is felt by the lightest indication of a chimney and the softest plumes of smoke. Lowry would eventually abstract figures completely from an industrial, urban, setting to place them against a pure white background, and Figures in a Street can be seen as a transitionary work.
Figures in a Street in many ways encapsulates everything that was important to Lowry as an artist and the same time exemplifies why the artist has been so fully absorbed into the British consciousness. It shows how he dramatises the everyday and the routine, giving iconic significance to anonymous individuals. These unknowns, moving from left to right across the canvas board, are imbued with a higher status merely by the act of painting them; their sense of self, and subsequently ours, is affirmed by Lowry who instils gravitas and meaning to the everyday, the dull and the routine.