Saturday, 9 May 2015

'LOWRY AND THE PAINTING OF MODERN LIFE'


The final part in a series of art exhibition reviews which are both hopelessly late and focus on modernism and the city. Earlier parts were on the Ashcan painter George Bellows and photography and the contemporary city.

"I saw the industrial scene and I was affected by it. I tried to paint it all the time. I tried to paint the industrial scene as best I could. It wasn't easy. Well, a camera could have done the scene straight off."

”A Very Fine Industrial Subject Matter”

It may be, of all people, Noel Gallagher we have to thank for this. Though Lowry's work was well collected, much sat in vaults and an ongoing campaign was calling for it to be better shown. But when he commented in an interview “they're not considered Tate-worthy” he wrapped the whole thing up in a snappy soundbite. After which there was really only one way to prove him wrong. (Though the Tate have denied this and claimed their exhibition was already in the works.) The choice of Tate Britain over Tate Liverpool may have been an attempt to shake the 'Northern', and thereby supposedly provincial, tag. (Or not compete with the Lowry in Salford.)

At the same time, the degree of Lowry's marginalisation from the art establishment may be part-mythologised. He became a member of the prestigious Royal Academy in 1962, and after his death in 1976 they gave him a full reteospective exhibition. Nevertheless, as some reviews demonstrated, his work can still be sneered at.

Perhaps it endured a triple whammy from disdain from critics. It was in a naïve style, it straightforwardly depicted scenes of ordinary working class life without any obvious need for gatekeepers. And – most heinous of all – it was popular! It sold particularly well in prints, its illustrational nature not losing too much in the translation to reproduction. Much antagonism is a simple case of snobbery. The disdain may well have been mutual. Like the earlier William Roberts, with whom Lowry has much in common, he was a cantankerous and private character, who turned down more honours than anyone else in Britain.

However, all of that obscures more than it enlightens. You can't really answer the question 'Was Lowry any good?' without asking 'what exactly was he doing?'


Let's start with the late work 'Piccadilly Circus, London' (1960, above), partly because it screws with the notion of Lowry being all about some kind of 'Northernness'. It was painted years before I was born, yet contains enough that's recognisable to me to spark off memories in my head – those bright red Routemaster buses, as if built to be oversize children's toys. But we have to get past all that. Lowry was painting the world of his day as he saw it. We have to think ourselves back to a time when all those giant-size Bovril adverts were boldly new, when for visitors to London it was akin to seeing today's Piccadilly Circus, with its futuristic banks of multiplex screens.

And for that reason the show's title is bang-on. Lowry didn't paint these scenes for us, arriving decades later. He painted modern life for a contemporary audience. Understanding this explains how he was influenced by Impressionist and post-Impressionist studies of real life (though the shows' placing examples side-by-side perhaps emphasises their differences above their similarities), and how he was taken seriously by French critics even when their British brethren only offered him disdain. As the curators put it:

“For Lowry thinking about painting... meant always thinking about what is most vivid, and pictorially unfamiliar, in contemporary life. The crowd at a football match, or a sky full of chimneys belching smoke, or the red of a London double-decker bus, any of them might jolt painting back to life.”

Lowry is – there's no avoiding it - repetitive. His motifs arrived early and, while he found variation within them, he didn’t venture outside them much. (And when he tried the results weren’t always successful. As several reviews stated, 'The Cripple' is just a poor knock-off of Otto Dix.) There are those who counter that his subject matter, the rhythms of city life, was equally repetitive. And they’re right, though the repetition does at times pale on you in a large comprehensive exhibition such as this.

But there’s an upside. The repetition, the naïve style keeps telling you this should all be straightforward. But, much like folk art, there’s something beguiling about it, it never quite settles. In this way the persona Lowry affected and so rigidly stuck to - a straightforward Northerner, with a day job and little time for intellectualisations - should be seen as part of his art as much as a self-defence mechanism.

People have seen in Lowry social reformist criticism, celebrations of working class life, disdain for the passive masses, straightforwardly nice little scenes and more. That's the advantage of deadpan. Everybody is able to project themselves onto those blank-faced figures. And in so doing, they miss Lowry. Despite his twee image, he didn't shy from showing the darker side of city life. We'll see examples later. But the point is the way the tone fluctuates, between the quiet celebrations of street life and the murmurs of unease – sometimes within the same work.


The early 'Coming from the Mill' (1930, above) might seem an archetypical clog-footed, chimney-belching Lowry. Stop a moment and you can see significant formal similarities to George Bellows' 'New York'. The scene is witnessed from the same elevated, slightly removed viewpoint. There's the same division of the composition into bands , with lower zone given to an accumulation of barely individuated figures, figures depicted in a way which could only be described as figurative. They even share a horse and cart! Less obviously but still present - both artists were happy to create from composite, not feeling constrained to fidelity to present scenes purely as they came across them. Perhaps above all there's the same sense of painterliness – that we are looking at a painting of something urban and modern - something we're not used to seeing painted.

Nevertheless the differences are bigger, so much bigger that its the similarities which need pointing out. In Bellows' era it might still have felt natural to paint rather than photograph the city. But by Lowry's time, twenty years later even in this early work, it was a conscious choice. (Check out his quip up top about using a camera.) And not uncoincidentally the sense that we're looking at an undisguised representation is enhanced. Bellows work is as dynamic and forceful as the New York it depicts, whereas Lowry's Northern England is in every sense an ocean away. The style is more naïve, the palette paler and more limited, colours often applied flatly. While a large part of Bellows' composition is the vertiginously receeding perspective, Lowry effectively resorts to perspective only where he has to. (In, for example, the stub of a sidestreet.) In the upper half of the painting he abandons it entirely, painting the equivalent of theatre flats. As Laura Cumming put in the Guardian: “The surface of his paintings is wall-like in itself: solid, obdurate, opaque.” He often painted on panel or board, to emphasise this sense of flatness.

Perhaps we should hear the case for the prosecution. Not writing particularly of this work, Richard Durrant lamented in the Telegraph:

“By contrast with [the] masters, the mediocrity of Lowry’s painting technique is blindingly obvious… [he] created pictorial space with lines, not brush work. He would draw the outlines of buildings with a straight edge and then colour them in…. But then, Lowry’s Manchester isn’t a recognisable place populated by real people but a toy town from a picture book intended for small children.”

Notably, he specifically compares Lowry disfavourably with Bellows. Its rather like those elderly relatives you had who’d complainingly compare the Beatles and Stones to classical music. All they could hear was what the music wasn't doing. He draws the outline of what Lowry does, but then fails to colour it in. It’s a description which thinks it’s a critique.

Lowry is quite deliberately deploying folk art styles, strongly associated with the rural past, to depict urban and contemporary subjects. So, while there certainly is something toytownish about his street scenes, that should really be seen less as a diss than a description. At the same time we see those chimneys rise so loftily above the human figures below, there is something diminutive about the whole scene. They look like dioramas.

To quote Laura Cumming again: ““He is never in it, of it, among it; there is no sense of… his proximity. Everything is tiny, distanced.” Its like the frame is there so the artist can be outside of it, so much as other stuff can be within it. Because, after all, what are dioramas and toytowns for? They're mini-environments which allow children to make microcosms of the world, the better to grasp the real thing. The small becomes a manipulable version of the large, the map a means to control the territory, art as a form of sympathetic magic.

How did he arrive at this? Lowry once said:

"We went to Pendlebury in 1909 from a residential side of Manchester, and... at first I disliked it, and then after about a year or so I got used to it, and then I got absorbed in it, then I got infatuated with it. Then I began to wonder if anyone had ever done it... and it seemed to me by that time that it was a very fine industrial subject matter. And I couldn't see anybody at that time who had done it - and nobody had done it, it seemed."


"At first I detested it, and then...One day I missed a train from Pendlebury - (a place) I had ignored for seven years — and as I left the station I saw the Acme Spinning Company's mill ... The huge black framework of rows of yellow-lit windows standing up against the sad, damp charged afternoon sky. The mill was turning out... I watched this scene — which I'd looked at many times without seeing — with rapture...

Moving house, missing a train... Lowry is effectively telling us his origin story twice, giving us two separate cinematic-style revelation moments to pin his art to. And when a man says he was bitten by a radioactive spider than later struck by a radioactive cannister while crossing the read – well, we're entitled to feel a little suspicious. Let's note Wikipedia also describes him as “a secretive and mischievous man who enjoyed stories irrespective of their truth”.

But if the tales are too good to be true, that's because they should be true. Bellows painted the city as a new thing, sights men had never before beheld as great new bridges and buildings went up, and which thereby transformed those who did behold it. Lowry paints the modern too. But he paints over-familiar streets with which we've become too accustomed, something we've stopped seeing and need to see anew.

”The Patterns Those People Form”

I'm not sure when or how the term 'matchstick men' got associated with Lowry. Was it another example of a dismissive term coined by some self-important critic, which later gained general acceptance, and so had its sting drawn? Or was it a generic term, analogous to 'stick figure', which just got attached to him? It seems to have been cemented in culture via the medium of popular song, Status Quo's 1968 hit 'Pictures of Matchstick Men' (though that really only borrows the term) and 1978's ghastly 'Matchstick Men and Matchstick Cats and Dogs' by professional Northerners Brian and Michael.

Brian and Michael's effort, risible enough to make Don McLean's 'Vincent' seem insightful by comparison, has quite possibly been more damaging to Lowry than any snooty Southern critic. But not just through it's naff-ness. The point about the matchstick men fixation is that it throws the emphasis in the wrong place. Lowry painted environments then placed his figures within them. If we don't get that we may as well hang his works upside-down.


Look back at the figures in 'Coming From the Mill', the caps and bonnets, their characteristic half-hunched way of walking – like they're a typeface in italics. They look quite similar to the isotope symbolic figures of workers, devised by Otto Neuwirth only five years before Lowry's painting. (The examples above designed by Gerd Arntz and Rudolf Modley respectively.) Yet we should remember that these figures are coming from work (in 'Piccadilly Circus' they're not so uniform), and that this this was a time when people dressed more uniformly, when clothing signified belonging not the need to stand out.

Lowry commented: “Natural figures would have broken the spell of my vision, so I made them half unreal.” And the half is as important as the real. Like Bellows before him, he painted his figures on the brink of identification. And unlike those isotype figures, designed to be identical, flickers of individuation run through them if you look hard enough.



Their scale can vary greatly. In 'The Football Match' (1949, upper above) they're essentially ants. What counts is the shape they make. Whereas with 'Lancashire Fair, Good Friday, Daisy Nook' (1946, lower above) the foreground figures are enlarged enough to take on identities, one small girl in a red coat even gazing back at us. The white ground emphasises the bright colours of their Sunday best clothes. Yet it's equally important that they receed into the background, and there be no precise tipping point where the characterised figures become an anonymised mass. We're not seeing characters set against a crowd background. We're seeing a crowd.


Lowry often uses figures like a musical composer would notes, for example in 'An Accident' (1926, above). The gathering crowd serves to obscure whatever's going on with the titular accident (actually a suicide), they're the title-belying subject of painting. Which creates a work both euphemistic and allusive. Lowry referred to “the patterns those people form, an atmosphere of tension when something's happened”. They're not an anonymous mass, visual statistics. But they do belong to their environment, like animals in a habitat, like flocks of birds in trees.

”The Dreadful Environs”

If the show perhaps underplays Lowry's portraits, it does show many of his bleak industrial landscapes. These are almost his other face to the street scenes – predominantly night over day settings, and instead of the usual teeming crowds largely bereft of human figures. (I remembered them as predominantly portrait while the street scenes were landscape, but looking back it seems there's many exceptions to this.)

They are if anything more diagrammatic than the street scenes, with what the show describes as a “sharp-edged geometry” almost reminiscent of Klee. Sometimes the elements are so iconic they draw their meaning from context as much as the code they're drawn in, like symbols on a map.


There's no human figures at all in 'River Scene (Industrial Landscape)' (1935, above), but the incongruous cottage effectively stands in for one, a friendly but faint puff of white emitting from its chimney amid all the black air. Typically of these scenes, its reminiscent of Paul Nash's work - though, ironically, less his depictions of the British countryside than his renderings of No Man's Land in the First World War. (See for example 'The Menin Road', 1919).  There's the same sense of a landscape simultaneously barren and littered with detritus – an almost post-apocalyptic sense of nature not just despoilt but denatured. In fact there's a remarkable overlap with paintings Lowry made of the Blitz, though this and other works preceded them.

The gallery guide quotes Orwell's 'Road To Wigan Pier' (1937): “I remember a winter afternoon in the dreadful environs of Wigan. All round was the lunar landscape of slag heaps... it seemed a world from which vegetation had been banished, nothing existed except smoke, shale, ice, mud, ashes and foul water.” We should remember environmental controls were almost non-existent at this time – add it to the landfill, stick it in a stream, anything went so long as it went.

The sheer number of times Lowry painted rivers cannot be coincidental. In his time, rivers and canals were still workplaces, throughways used for transporting goods. Though you can just about make out a direction for the river here, its hard to imagine it flowing. It simply looks stagnant. There's a connection between the way it seeps into its surroundings and the way the sombre mood of the painting infects the viewer.

Yet for all the ways in which these scenes are like some pollution-sodden riposte to bucolic Romanticism Lowry finds a kind of poetry even here; the guide speaking of “a rueful, almost admiring recognition of the ugly grandeur of the industrial scene”. It's reminiscent of something the Italian director Michaelangelo Antonioni once said:

”It's too simplistic to say... that I am condemning the inhuman industrial world which oppresses the individuals and leads them to neurosis. My intention... was to translate the poetry of the world, in which even factories can be beautiful. The line and curves of factories and their chimneys can be more beautiful than the outline of trees, which we are already too accustomed to seeing. It is a rich world, alive and serviceable... The neurosis I sought to describe... is above all a matter of adjusting. There are people who do adapt, and others who can't manage, perhaps because they are too tied to ways of life that are by now out-of-date.”

Post War: Sun Over Pendlebury

One of the exhibition's main theses is to find a path of development in an artist often assumed to be uniform and unchanging:

“From the Second World War onwards, Lowry's art took a different tack. For all his solid Lancashire Conservatism, he responded profoundly to the new political and cultural realities of Britain after 1945. The obstreperous vitality of the working class becomes increasingly a subject. His style grew more comic and cartoonish. It edged deliberately towards the 'popular'.”


And certainly, there's much to this. Compare the illos above, the pre-war 'Coming From the Mill' and 'An Accident' against the later 'Piccadilly Circus' and 'Lancashire Fair'. Or look at the large 'VE Day' (1945, above). Its composition is similar to 'Lancashire Fair' but on a still-bigger scale. The horseshoe of houses frames a street party, while the bunting-decked streets receed on either side to suggest similar scenes going on throughout the city. In a small yet significant detail, the foreground figures are slightly cropped by the base of the painting, almost starting to erode the once-distinct separation of the viewer from the view. Those chimneys have stopped belching their sombre browns, bright primary colours are starting to spark up. Its as if the once-trudging crowd find their own will, their own collective identity.

There may be a biographical as much as a social explanation for this. Lowry spent most of the Thirties caring for his bedridden mother, who died in October 1939. This was a time where he gained his own independence, coming out into the world he'd only been able to paint as his mother slept. And perhaps not uncoincidentally, it also seems to be during this period his popularity took off. The same year marked his first London exhibition.

But there's a problem - this is also what comes to construct the 'beloved Lowry', the kitsch national treasure. In the distance, Brian and Michael are starting to don their oversize cloth caps. The show, however, is keen to point out that Lowry didn't permanently swap to the sunny side of the street.


Take for example 'A Protest March' (1959, above). Seen from an unusually elevated perspective, the figures march in ranks, largely in funereal black, their enlarged and outstretched feet marking a heavy trudge. I People come out of their doors but look on bemused, none joining in. t's definitely a march, more than a demonstration or parade. Its the protest march not as celebration of resistance but as obligation, as the rote marker of something which will inevitably fall upon us. The self-assertiveness of working class identity is far from here.


Similarly, 'Ancoats Hospital, Outpatients Hall' (1952, above) is a rare interior for Lowry. The National Health Service was often celebrated in art of this period, for example by Barbara Hepworth, but Lowry presents it less as a benevolent institution than... well, as an institution. The large space, the crowds amassed on benches, you'd be forgiven for first mistaking it for a train station.

People-free Panoramas


The centrepiece of the show, though it comes at the end, is five large panoramas painted in the early Fifties. Notably, the poster image is an enlargement of one of these - 'Industrial Landscape', (1955, above). In a sense they're a fusion of the street scenes with the earlier industrial landscapes, though they're so grand in size any sense of the human element is thrown out. They're more pictogrammatic maps of whole neighbourhoods, sewn together by stitching flyovers and arterial rivers.

Chance handed me a way of framing this shift in scale. After the show I took the coach out of London. At first the windows give you a straight-on, elevated view of the streets around you – much like the earlier scenes. But as the coach then climbs up on the Westway flyover, the immediate environment falls away and the panorama of London stretches out around you.

The show quite rightly focuses on the first of these being made for the 1951 Festival of Britain. A seeming pinnacle of post-war optimism, the event perhaps also marked the point where that world went sour – creating a mechanised, bureaucratised world where people are almost incidental.

The show gives us a long quote from John Berger contextualising these, let's take a sample: “Their logic implies the collapse still to come. This is what has happened to the 'workshop of the world'... the ineffectiveness of national planning... the shift of power from industrial capital to international finance capital”. But Berger's quote is from 1966, ten to fifteen years after the event, and ironically may have become more appealing to us today. Its more hindsight than insight. As ever, Lowry's response is creatively ambiguous – more so than Berger supposes. We think of flyovers as soulless non-places, most probably litter-strewn and graffiti-covered. But when Lowry painted them, most likely they'd only been built. (Much like Turner's railway viaducts.) Unlike the soot-soaked streets of the Thirties that accumulated in earlier rooms, these scenes are gleaming clean. It's like shuffling through some mortal coil and arriving at a kind of heaven. As with all effective dystopias, he has given his creation something of the compelling pull of utopias.

As with the change in his Forties work, there may be a more biographical explanation. And in fact it's almost the same explanation, just the other way up. By 1951, Lowry was 64. This could be the work of an older man feeling less engaged with the world. The cartoonist Eddie Campbell once said of his own youth: “I was more physically involved in things. I live a more mental life now... My sensations of the real world, the grass and the trees and the concrete aren't as sharp as they were”. ('Arkensword' 17-18) It’s possible Lowry spent little more than a decade alive in the world, the rest framing it from one angle or another.

2 comments:

  1. As usual, your review is both insightful and idiosyncratic. I would like, however, to offer my own perspective. I knew Lowry; he was my godfather and he was a very important part of my childhood. He died just as I entered adulthood so we never met as peers but my mother had known him since her early teens; he was about thirty years her senior and became a close friend of her family. He visited us frequently and I enjoyed going to his remarkable home. I found him to be well-read, knowledgeable about art and music, rebellious and, to me, always kind. You are right to note that his own stories about himself are unreliable. He was fundamentally contrary and my father would manipulate him by asking him to do the opposite of my father's wishes.

    I think that it is important to note that he was never naive or primitive. He was trained formally in drawing and painting. His distinctive style is a distillation of his observations not an immature simplicity. He is no more naive than were Moore or Nash. His works were created with posterity in mind (why else would he ask "Will I last?") and he chose paints that would patinate to the colours he sought: Prussian Blue blackens and Flake White turns a soft grey. I remember him peering at his paintings in art galleries and observing that they were "dropping nicely".

    He was fascinating company and I still miss him.

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  2. Thanks for the comments and the kind words, Theo. I'm not sure I'd ever heard before about him being your Godfather. The only claim to fame my family has was that my Grandfather was once sworn at by HG Wells. (True story!)

    Agreed about the distinction between being naive and painting in a naive style, and Lowry definitely being in the second category. The point about the Richard Durrant quote to me was that he was seeing a conscious choice as technical inability. Lowry chose to paint the way he did, and for a reason.

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