Lowry and the painting of modern life @ Tate Britain

Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887–1976) was born and worked all his life in Lancashire. He had a thorough academic art training, studying under the French painter Pierre Valette who conveyed the impressionist requirement to paint the reality of Modern Life. But whereas Valette’s scenes combine impressionism with something more, a symbolist pregnancy of meaning (see ‘York Street leading to Charles Street’, below), Lowry abandoned both the European modernist tradition he had been exposed to and the academic realism he had been trained in, to forge the ‘naive’ and provincial art which became his brand.

Lowry and the painting of modern life at Tate Britain is the biggest exhibition of his painting since his death, bringing together some 60 Lowries as well as paintings by European influences (van Gogh, Pissarro), relevant books, newspaper, magazine cuttings and short clips from black and white footage of Salford and the industrial north.

It is a bleak, depressing experience to stand in front of painting after painting depicting grim terraced streets, populated by anonymous splinter-thin, clumsy figures, all following their pointless lives under an unforgiving grey sky. When it dawned on me that grim, grey, overcast skies characterise them all, I went back and checked and, sure enough, their isn’t a shred of blue sky in any of his paintings.

For me this began to indicate the formulaic, monotonous and ultimately unrealist nature of his work because, even in Lancashire, the sun did occasionally shine in the 50 years between 1926 and 1976. People did go fishing, cycling out to the country, got married, drove around in cars, fitted new kitchens, bought radios and TVs, sang in choirs, fell in love, had parties.

But not in Lowry: in Lowry there is only one mood, looking down from a great height or distance the artist obsessively paints the same view of heartless back-to-back terraces, smokey chimney stacks against grey lowering skies and hordes of skittle-like anonymous figures hurrying here and there on what the paintings insist are pointless and futile little lives.

Much is made of the fact that Lowry took a job as a rent collector and so was very familiar with the day-to-day struggles of the working classes he ‘depicts’. Maybe so, but there are no individuals anywhere in his art, only depressingly faceless crowds often attracted to the scenes of accidents or sickness which he painted in his early career.

L.S. Lowry The Fever Van, 1935

L.S. Lowry The Fever Van (1935) Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool, UK)

The sixth and final room in the exhibition brings together some very big landscapes he painted in the 1950s and 60s, some commissioned, ironically enough, for the optimistic 1951 Festival of Britain. Revealingly, they are imaginary landscapes: that is, Lowry’s stylisation of industrial urban landscape is so stereotyped that the same handful of elements – the red brick terraced houses, the chimney stacks, the smutty white sky, the dirty white ground (no grass, no trees) – can be recombined endlessly, with little or no relation to ‘reality’.

L S Lowry Industrial Landscape, 1955

L S Lowry Industrial Landscape (1955) Tate © The estate of L.S. Lowry

By the 1960s his style had gotten a little lighter, a bit more lively. This painting of Piccadilly Circus is uncharacterstically colourful but still retains the trademark dirty white sky, the improbably white pavement and road. Pavements and roads are not white. This is an unrealistic stylisation, a cartoon effect.

L S Lowry Piccadilly Circus, London 1960

L S Lowry Piccadilly Circus, London (1960) Private collection © The Estate of LS Lowry © Christie’s Images Limited / The Bridgeman Art Library

Lowry never married, never had children, never enjoyed family life. Apparently, aged 88 he confessed he had ‘never had a woman’. For me this comes as no surprise. His paintings are about a cold detachment from life and from its visual possibilities: sunshine, walking, riding, cycling, running, playing football, the life of the body and the life of the mind, sex, jazz, parties, books, poetry, radio, film, TV, sport, politics, just about everything which makes up human life is absent from these relentlessly repetitive reworkings of faceless crowds in heartless urban landscapes under the same Lowry-ing sky.

‘Were it not for my painting, I couldn’t live. It helps me forget that I am alone.’

Miserable bastard.

The standout painting in the exhibition was this impressionist/symbolist masterpiece by Lowry’s teacher, Pierre Valette who painted numerous impressionist-style works depicting foggy rainy Manchester. There is also a van Gogh of the northern outskirts of Paris in the 1870s and a Pissaro of Norwood when he was living over here to escape the Franco-Prussian War. All of these French paintings, unromantic though their subjects are, nonetheless have a vibrancy and intensity and life which the Lowries entirely lack. Choose life.

York Street leading to Charles Street, Manchester by Pierre Valette

York Street leading to Charles Street, Manchester by Pierre Valette

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  1. Art and Life: Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis, William Staite Murray, 1920 – 1931 @Dulwich Picture Gallery | Books & Boots

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