There’s a central chapter in Moby Dick where the narrator Ishmael traces his fascination with the whale to the colour white. For all its associations ‘with whatever is sweet, and honourable, and sublime’, he feels that ‘there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood’. Could it be, he wonders, that ‘by its indefiniteness …it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation?’
Ishmael is on to something here. Chromatically, as the colourless sum of all colours, white is already enough of a contradiction; symbolically, it’s a whole new can of worms. The colour of lilies, doves, milk, snow and bridal veils is also the colour of ghosts, mould, Avenging Angel mushrooms, white rot, bones and death. On the day I visit The Art of White at The Lowry, it is also the colour of the sky over Manchester, wrapped in what Kenneth Clark romantically described as a ‘perpetual, pearly mist’ but the woman behind me on the Manchester Metrolink sums up as ‘foggy though, innit?’
Clark was explaining L.S. Lowry’s idiosyncratic habit of painting the backgrounds to his pictures white — a quirk which has provided his museum with the theme for its latest exhibition. Given Lowry’s oddness, the museum’s curators have been rather clever at devising shows that place him in a wider artistic context. Their exhibition The Impossible View — an art-historical pan around invented panoramas — won the Museums & Heritage award in 2003. The same curator, Clive Adams, is responsible for this show, which takes in a still broader historical sweep, from an Annunciation by a follower of Perugino to a new commission for a plumbing installation from Natasha Kidd — a bold move for a popular gallery that still feels obliged, in its wall texts, to put the word ‘conceptual’ between inverted commas.
After a couple of introductory rooms devoted to Lowry, the 80 borrowed works in the show are divided into Representational, Symbolic, and Modern and Contemporary sections. Natasha Kidd’s ‘Flow and Return’ is installed on the upper Deck but no longer functional, since its 25 gallons of white paint became too thick for its 30 metres of copper piping. (For Theo van Doesburg white may have defined the modern era as one ‘of perfection, purity and certitude’, but nothing is certain in the world of plumbing.)
There’s always a temptation with this sort of show to plug the gaps with thematic Polyfilla. There are too many women in white (or in bed) in this exhibition — from the brushes of Ingres, Leighton, Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown, Rafaelli, La Thangue, Sichel, Peploe, Fergusson, Gilman and Pasmore — and not all the blame can be put on Wilkie Collins. Pairings of pictures on similar themes introduce a dynamic, with William Nicholson losing to Giorgio Morandi in a direct confrontation between white vases. But it’s hard to keep up the tension in a field for which the only entry qualification is a white ticket, admitting artists and subjects as diverse as Constable (clouds over Hampstead), Turner (breakers at Dover), Wilson Steer (sails at Cowes), Edward Bawden (clay pipes on a table) and Paul Nash (bog cotton in vase) to the same representational enclosure. The selection of modern painters — including Ben Nicholson, Paul Feiler, Terry Frost, Robert Ryman and Ian McKeever — hangs together better, and the conceptual section looks surprisingly coherent thanks to a focus on photography by such as Andy Goldsworthy, David Batchelor, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Boyd Webb. Webb delivers the show’s punch-line in ‘The Conservationist’, a photographic tableau picturing an elderly lady defending her Edwardian maroon dado against an advancing decorator’s white roller.
Does The Art of White offer the key to Ishmael’s puzzle? No. But like other themed exhibitions, it does give us the chance to see pictures normally hidden in distant collections. For me, it was a welcome introduction to Sofonisba Anguissola’s beautiful ‘The Artist’s Sister in the Garb of a Nun’ from Southampton City Art Gallery; Maerten van Heemskerk’s marvellously ambivalent ‘Allegory of Innocence and Guile’ from the Bowes Museum; and Edward Burra’s ‘Winter’ from the Arts Council Collection, a weird snow scene like a sinister Christmas card designed by a latter-day Brueghel on mind-bending drugs.
But the exhibition’s most disturbing picture is Landseer’s ‘A Random Shot’ from Bury Art Gallery. Seen in the National Gallery of Scotland’s Landseer show last year, it could have been dismissed as Victorian schmaltz, but in the context of The Art of White its image of a fawn suckling from its dying mother in the snow is chilling. Landseer knew the coldness of the Scottish landscape in winter almost as well as Melville knew the sea. His is the only image that taps into that ‘elusive something’ lurking in white and ‘shadows forth the heartless voids’ dreaded by Ishmael.