Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life
26 June to 20 October 2013
“It’s grim up north” has become a joke phrase in Britain, parodied in the pages of Private Eye and used in comic sketches for years. The Lowry exhibition at Tate Britain demonstrates that it truly was grim in the industrialised north in the first half of the 20th century. Lowry shows us grimy buildings alongside desolate wastelands. His stick people crowd round a dead body on the ground or watch as the fever van takes away another sick child or attend one more funeral. This is not a happy land. The sky is grey. It is always grey. This is what struck me most looking round a gallery of Lowry’s compositions: the sky is grey in every painting. There are no shadows. There is not a hint of sun.
As a child, I knew of Lowry as the man who painted stick figures. I never understood how a “serious painter” could paint people so badly, so I naïvely thought him a bad painter. Forty years later, the Tate’s exhibition solved the puzzle for me with a single word: impressionism. Lowry was trained by an impressionist painter, Adolphe Valette. Lowry is an impressionist painter.
Lowry’s early work shows that he could easily handle perspective, light and shade but these are largely missing in his later paintings. His later painting style is a deliberately adopted impressionism. His is not the attractive impressionism of lily ponds and cathedrals at sunset. His is a grim, grey, grimy impressionism of urban Lancashire, devastated by the depredations of the industrial revolution. It is the distillation of the industrialised Lancashire townscape: dirty, sad, poor, and hard. It is an impression not a true-to-life telling. For example, the houses are too far apart; no industrialist would allow the extent of wasteland shown by Lowry, he would build slums to house his workers. The people are stylised so that they do not draw the eye. Lowry needed people to populate his towns, otherwise the townscape would be sterile. But he must also have known that the viewer’s eye would be drawn inexorably to the people: it is human nature to be most interested in other humans. He says “Natural figures would have broken the spell of my vision, so I made them half unreal.”
The Tate Britain exhibition opened my eyes to what Lowry was trying to do with his stick figures and his half-unreal townscapes. His paintings are a necessary reminder that life “up north” was once unremittingly grim and that life for many round the world still is. It is an art that challenges the way we live off the backs of others. Lowry himself said “if art fails to confront the new world made by industry it becomes bloodless and inward-looking, mistaking novelty for innovation.”
A version of this review was published in Reform, September 2013.