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.