Review: Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life
This article is from the August 2013 issue of Total Politics
Just how inherently political a response LS Lowry’s work inspires was summed up by what was destined to be a serene Monday morning amble through a press preview of the Tate Britain’s new retrospective.
Anxious publicity officers and curators heroically smiled on as an altercation between a broadcaster and photographer broke out in the final room of the exhibition. Surrounded on all sides by the artist’s signature series of Industrial Landscapes, the photographer yelled “you know how to insult Mancunians!” at the journalist’s suggestion that some children in one of the paintings were depicted playing with sewage. “Where are you from? Where are you from?” the dispute continued…
And it’s this tension between north and south, left and right, Lowry’s working class subjects and the lofty reflections of London’s art world that has unfortunately come to define the opening of this exhibition. Notably, it is the first time such a show has been held by a public art space since Lowry died, and the Tate Britain has repeatedly been accused of ignoring its own works by the artist.
This uncomfortable snobbery debate, however, should not shroud the visual richness the retrospective has to offer. The display of over 900 works is far from simple, repetitive – a criticism often levelled at him – or, as one Times art correspondent put it, having “a certain Where’s Wally? aspect”. It is at once luscious and sparse, vibrant and grayscale, but always more essentially human than political.
Lowry himself was more complex than a ‘painter who captured the industrial working class’, as he is often labelled deferentially by eggshell-treading, southern-dwelling critics. He was a lifelong Conservative supporter for one thing, and as a day job collected rent from the very subjects for whom his brush was supposed to conjure such sympathy.
Always an outsider, then, and the often blank, white faces of the people in his paintings may represent a surprising distance between the workers and himself. He also painted more than Lancashire – from Piccadilly Circus to the Lake District, he found similar crowds of people with the same dogged gait, walking determinedly into the wind, as if pulled by a magnet attracted to their caps.
And it’s not just gloom and misery. Some of his most stirring portrayals involve leisurely weekends and holidays – VE Day (1945) ripples with red and blue bunting, crowds are pulled en masse towards the invisible force of a football game (Going to the Match, 1953), the oddly intimate pitch we view from afar in The Football Match (1949) peacefully reflecting the blurred, fluffy grey of the sky above it. The viewer is similarly separated and elevated above the five large industrial panoramas; impressive yet somehow unassuming vistas of red brick, compressed clouds, and slight, frenetic smudges of people.
Yet the exhibition also explores the darker corners of Lowry’s melancholy. The oppressive permanence of The Fever Van (1935) parked on a residential road, crouching, ready to snatch the ill child from their community of curious bystanders, probably forever, is tragedy at its most workaday.
One odd angle chosen by the curators was the inclusion of works by Van Gogh and Pissarro to demonstrate how European acclaim for Lowry came earlier than in London. It seemed they included these extra works almost to prove the point that the artist touched and drew from more than the provincial life that characterises his work. But it was unnecessary and perhaps had the opposite effect. They should have stuck to Lowry for Lowry’s sake.