Colin Hambrook on portrayals of 'disability' / 24 September 2012
Earlier this month I attended a Disability Studies Conference at Lancaster University. One of the papers that has stayed with me was a piece of work-in-progress on ‘Disability in Cultural Spaces’ by Nancy Hansen from Manitoba University. She'd been to The Lowry Museum in Salford, where one of her favourite paintings 'The Cripples' is displayed.
I've never been a particular fan of LS Lowry's work. I’ve always felt a certain discomfort with the atmosphere of nostalgia evoked by his scenes of the industrial north in the first half of the 20th century, peopled by ‘matchstick’ figures. But then, Lowry has always been painted by the media as a sad, romantic, figure and perhaps at least some of my perception has been coloured by the copy I’ve read about him.
What Hansen brought alive in her talk was the extent to which how art and the artist is perceived, is so much about the curation of work and the focus on the way it is interpreted. She homed in on a later painting by Lowry - one of her favourites - 'The Cripples (1949). She talked about her own immediate response being one of liberation and a sense of being "amongst my people for the first time” in stark contrast to how the media and The Lowry Museum write about the painting.
One of the key things for Hansen is how the Disability aesthetic is misunderstood, through a cultural insistence that it is per se a metaphor for an ugly or defective aspect of society. For instance the painting is consistently talked about as presenting its panoply of disabled people ‘as figures in isolation' when, rather, if you look closely, there is a lot of interaction and inter-relating happening between the individuals depicted on the canvas. Hansen expressed wonder that they were indeed looking at the same painting she was seeing.
The teachers pack in The Lowry talks about the painting as being 'cruel and ugly', and of a 'disturbing, violent, voyeuristic nature.' Then with incredibly leading questions it goes on to ask: 'How does it make you feel? Is it meant to be a funny painting; a cruel painting, or both?'
In further references to 'The Cripples' quoted by Hansen, it is seen as a 'metaphor for all that is going wrong in the world'. Each of the impairments of the characters is often explored in full, reducing Lowry’s art to a medical model fascination with his subjects. There is a general assumption made, that disability is always a miserable state of being. The Lowry itself purports a reluctance to have copies of 'The Cripples' on postcards, for fear it might be in bad taste.
What is missed out, often, is context and analysis of the time it was painted, both in terms of The Cripples' being a post-war urban scene, when many war-amputees would have been seen on the streets of Manchester. Indeed at least ten of the characters in the painting were well-known individuals.
Meanwhile the painting meant much to Lowry as an expression of his own sense of being disabled by society. He said of it: “I feel strongly about these people. I am attracted to the sadness. I feel like them.”
The picture that emerges through Hansen's research highlights how what is written about 'The Cripples' says more about the attitudes of the media and the art education sector, than perhaps it does about the painting itself. Could the perception of 'The Cripples as 'a voyage into the grotesque' be merely a projection of the fears and prejudices of those interpreting the painting in this way?
I’m fascinated by the ways that disability is portrayed. Reference to disability in museums is so often ranged around access, failing to consider deeper implications of what the ways it is talked about (or not talked about) might mean. I look forward to finding more about Hansen’s research when it is ready for publication.