Friday 28 June 2013

One of Us

I contributed this week’s ‘Connecting with Culture’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

One of my memories from childhood, being born and brought up in northwest England, was the L.S. Lowry print hung in our home. It had a comfortable familiarity: the terraced houses looked like the ones in our street, as did the park railings and the carriage prams. It was easy to be drawn into the characters depicted, imagining where they were going and what they were doing. All this was confirmed with the 1978 hit by Brian and Michael – ‘Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs’ – which I proudly sang along to when it was shown on Top of the Pops. Lowry, it seemed, was one of us.

So it was with some sense of nostalgia that I joined a modest-sized crowd for the opening of the Lowry exhibition at Tate Britain earlier this week. I still find myself drawn into the paintings – though now with more awareness of the influence of 19th-century French art on Lowry and his significance for understanding English culture and social history.

Lowry (1887-1976) was middle class, but described how his eyes were opened to the terrain in which he worked – until his retirement – as a rent collector. He painted at night from memory, and the vast majority of the industrial landscapes for which he is most known are amalgamations of everyday life – street parties, factory gates, belching chimneys, protest marches, football matches. And lots of people – individually differentiated, each of them alive with movement.

Although his paintings depict a world away from us, it’s still possible to resonate with the ordinariness of what’s shown – people going to and from work, children playing in the park. Likewise with the darker moments – the fever van taking the sick child to isolation hospital, a woman’s suicide, the ejection of a house tenant, a pit tragedy.

It’s a moot point whether Lowry claimed comradeship with those whose lives he portrayed, but there is no dispute with God. Jesus’ parables painted God’s reign in the colours of everyday life. More than that, Jesus was with us and alongside us. But the incarnation is not an end in itself. In his death and resurrection, the one who is ‘one of us’ did for us what we could not do for ourselves. As such those everyday places are not just invested with creational significance, but can also be places where the redemptive scope of Jesus’ work is reflected and worked out.

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