Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

The people’s painter

Tate Britain’s L S Lowry exhibition seeks to rescue his work from the enormous condescension of the art world. Michael Calderbank spoke to co-curator Anne Wagner

August 26, 2013
7 min read

lowry-matchL S Lowry, Going to the Match, 1953. Professional Footballers Association, © The Estate of LS Lowry

Growing up in the mill towns of north-west England, as I did, it is hard not to see the work of L S Lowry with a particular affection and familiarity – as though something of ourselves and our surroundings has been magically encapsulated in the medium of paint. But this very ‘situatedness’ of Lowry has seen his work celebrated as part of the northern heritage industry – a parochial art of merely regional interest, devoid of major importance in the nation’s treasury of significant artworks. For the jet-setting metropolitan art world, Lowry is nostalgic, sentimental, slightly primitive and, worst of all, popular. Despite this enduring popularity, Lowry’s work has not been the subject of a solo-artist exhibition at any major gallery in Britain since his death in 1979.

The art historian Anne Wagner, co-curator with T J Clark of Tate Britain’s forthcoming Lowry exhibition, is unapologetic in dissenting from the prevailing consensus. ‘The national art scene is wrong. This view of Lowry as regional or irrelevant gets his ambitions and contribution as a painter wrong,’ she says.

‘The Tate has bought into this view of modernism in painting as being about the successive stages in the international rise of abstraction,’ she continues. ‘That’s one way of seeing modern painting, but it’s not the only one. What is modern painting? That’s still to be contested; it’s not a done deal. Has figurative painting any role to play in the depiction of modern life? It’s present even in artists where abstraction is so pivotal, like Picasso. Lowry offers something this country – as a nation rather than a set of regions – would be poorer without: the great achievement of actually having painted the effects of industrialisation.’

Political charge

There is clearly a political charge to this re-evaluation. ‘Lowry doesn’t paint from the perspective of the victors; he paints “life from below”, to borrow a key term in the emergence of social history. Seen in the light of the work of other contemporaries – socialist realism, commissions from US industrialists such as Henry Ford, or the iconography of national socialism – Lowry is remarkable for the way working class life is not represented according to the schema of one mode of propaganda or another but simply in its own right. So the act of representing the Hawker’s Cart or the Fever Van registers the aspects of life that would have been foreign to those unfamiliar with the daily realities of ordinary life in working class communities.’

Where we see crowds, we are not confronted with the ‘violent mob’ or the ‘noble proletarian struggle’ but simply people going to see the match, or some other scene of daily life. ‘From a formal point of view, how to paint the crowd is a difficult question. He portrays aspects of working class life without flinching but without reducing the scenes to tragedy or soap opera. But nor is it an affirmative picture of contented communities. It’s not kitsch, by which I mean it doesn’t do your thinking or feeling for you. He was well aware of this danger and became more and more aware of it in representing, in the later work, la comedie humaine, the shared deformity of our condition.’

Lowry spent decades working as a rent-collector – a side of his life that he hid from critics – whose rounds of the streets saw him encounter people on the threshold of the domestic and public spheres. But the view of Lowry as a technically unsophisticated or untutored painter working in a parochial idiom is very far from the truth.

Modern painter

‘We make no bones about this idea of what it means to paint modern life coming over from France and Lowry’s awareness of that,’ says Wagner. Lowry was taught to paint by emigre French impressionist artist Adolphe Valette at the Manchester Municipal School of Art. Wagner remarks on Lowry’s ‘difference from the impressionists but also his relation to the likes of Pissarro in attending to aspects of modern life such as the city-in-transition and the no-man’s land of industrialisation.’

Far from being a naive painter, Lowry was visually literate in the idiom of modern European painting. His work shows notable parallels with other varieties of 20th-century modernism. The angularity of intersecting lines and planes in depicting the excavation of the site for the Rylands mill in central Manchester are reminiscent of Soviet constructivist theatre designs of the 1920s. And there are striking echoes of the work of German expressionists such as George Grosz and Otto Dix after the first world war in The Cripples (1949).

Wagner explains that the exhibition is organised thematically but with a sense of Lowry’s development as an artist in mind. So rooms are devoted, for example, to the ‘Industrial Gothic’ (the dark side of the urban landscape, of human and industrial dereliction); the ‘Social Life of Labour Britain’ (the post-war lightening of the mood where we witness the interior of a hospital, recalling the newly universal access to healthcare, or supporters off to watch the football); and the big industrial panaromas of the 1950s and 1960s, which see Lowry synthesising elements of his work to that point.

Short of totality

But the curators make no claim to represent the totality of Lowry’s output. The dream-images of the fantasy girl/woman simply known as ‘Ann’ do not appear; nor are his private fetishistic/bondage drawings included, which depict a feminine figure trussed up into a sexualised ‘mechano-morphed’ form, or ‘made to submit to the torture of geometry’, as Wagner puts it. The latter are far removed from the conventional avuncular quality of Lowry’s public image, and approach the highly disturbing surreality of Hans Bellmer’s work.

I suggest that this was perhaps an opportunity missed to further unsettle the conventional ‘heritage industry’ view of Lowry. But the curators felt this would have distracted from the core theme of the exhibition, and – particularly in the wake of the Savile scandal and Operation Yew Tree – would have almost exclusively dominated its reception in a media currently dominated by stories of the abuse of young women.

Also missing are the seascapes, which Lowry considered among his best work. Wagner concedes that some of the late seascapes are ‘fascinating’ but proved too hard to integrate, and raised technical difficulties from a curatorial point of view.

Where the posthumous Royal Academy show featured 350 works by Lowry, Tate Britain will exhibit 95, an avowedly selective choice very much focused on his depiction of the north, industrialisation and working class life. But it’s precisely what is most ‘familiar’ in Lowry that we are being encouraged to observe afresh, to see what the prevailing assumptions and traditional genealogies of art history have occluded.

‘Lowry makes such an important contribution, making an honest visual record of all that “industrialisation” – which, together with empire constitutes Britain’s most world-historic legacy – has done to shape our modern lives. He shows something crucial. No-one was painting this stuff. He brought truth to the painting of it. That’s no mean feat.’ And as Wagner herself reflects, the importance of contesting the marginalisation and disparagement of working class experience in British culture takes on a wider relevance in the current economic climate.

‘Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life’ is at Tate Britain until 20 October 2013

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones