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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

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