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  

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency


11