Sunday, 7 July 2013

Lowry – a painter for the world

Industrial Landscape, 1955
Laurence Stephen Lowry. Artist and rent collector. Born 1887. Died 1976. That’s the barest pencil outline of facts. But here is another: since his death, there has been not a single exhibition of his work in London.

As the very landscape of the north of England that he painted has been deleted from view, sanitised and landscaped and replaced, there has been a concomitant refusal from ‘The Establishment’ to consider his work seriously, as anything beyond the daubings of a naïve and parochial painter who pictured something that it had no desire to see.

Such a statement is not Northern ‘chippiness’: my edition of the Oxford Companion to Art, first published in 1969 (my edition, 1988), edited by Harold Osborne (formerly of the Foreign Office and the Board of Trade) cannot bring itself, in more than 1,200 pages – including a specific essay on English art right into the 20th century – to once mention Lowry.

Elizabeth I, attributed to Nicholas Hilliard
Yet now, in the Tate Britain’s new exhibition, he is not simply restored to a position of importance within British art as a whole, but is finally acknowledged as an artist of global importance.

Uniquely, I had got hold of the catalogue early last week with the aim of reading up before actually visiting the exhibition.

So to begin with, a brief summary of some of the points made by the curators, TJ Clark and Anne M Wagner.

First, Lowry’s work was not provincial. As Clark explains in an essay, his industrial landscapes have a universality that extends far beyond the north of England. As countries such as China undergo their own industrial revolution, they will also be experiencing what Lowry sought to capture.

Clark posits the case that, if you want English parochial, then the modern London art scene is far nearer to that.

The catalogue makes quite clear, using Lowry’s own words, that he looked around him and saw that nobody else “had done it” – painted the industrial – and that he set out with a quite specific aim of ‘doing it’ himself. For that, as I mentioned in a 2010 article on this blog, he had to create his own visual language.

Lady with a Squirrel & Starling
As I also mentioned then, there is no sentiment in Lowry. Clark very nicely makes the point that what he managed was to combine, in effect, Engels and George Formby Snr: politics and the music hall. There is empathy here and there is humour, but all with a dispassionate perspective.

Clark also explores just why Lowry was so familiar with his landscape: while few others could have strolled around those areas in comfort (Baudelaire’s flâneur), the very nature of his work as a rent collector meant that he both could and did.

It allowed him to observe up close, but also with just the right amount of distance.

The exhibition also includes works by artists such as Utrillo, Pissarro, Seurat and Van Gogh – and, of course, Valette – dotted around, which help to give a very valuable context to Lowry’s work, and help you realise its connections with and links to wider art.

Actually, we had gained a further context from a wander around the general galleries before our time to enter the main exhibition came up.

Liverpool Quay at Midnight
And it seems fair to say that a great deal of British art has been really rather poor.

A portrait of Elizabeth I, attributed to Nicholas Hilliard (c1575), is a perfect example, with its impossible anatomy – just look at that left shoulder/arm. And in the same room, Hans Holbein’s exquisite Lady with a Squirrel and Starling (1527) shows just what could be done in northern Europe half a century earlier.

Elsewhere, there’s the gloomy palette of Gainsborough. Stubbs – yes, brilliant with horses but not so good with lions. Reynolds – almost grotesque tweeness and sentiment.

Two pieces by Joseph Wright of Derby stand out, as does the wonderful Liverpool Quay at Midnight (1887) by the fabulously-named Atkinson Grimshaw.

There are two Whistlers – excellent. And then some Pre-Raphelites, which, as I’ve said before, are excellently executed, but dreadfully mawkish and sentimental, and with a highly dubious attitude toward the representation of women.

And so to Lowry.

Beyond those connections to a wider art world, things that strike you when seeing such a body of work include his use of the vertical and horizontal in composing his pictures. And no matter how random Lowry’s crowds might, on the surface seem, their positioning is far from accidental and also helps draw the eye in the way the artist wanted.

This is never more the case than in the five vast industrial landscapes in the final room – never before seen together – which you can quite easily get lost in.

Going to the Match, 1924
And he does not go for the obvious compositionally: in Going to the Match from 1924, which shows crowds arriving for. Game at Bolton Wanderers’ old ground, Burnden Park, he chooses only to let the stadium be partially seen, ensuring that its context in an industrial landscape remains.

In Saturday Afternoon, from 1941, he does something similar. A football match is taking place, but it occupies a small space on the left of the canvas. The mill dominates, full centre.

In A Cricket Match of 1952, the game itself is loured over by a vast, dark mill. You may get some respite from industrial toil, but it’s never far away, seems to be the message.

But while it may have been grim up north, the people don’t simply give into the gloom and their situation. Pubs and betting are seen on Lowry’s canvases, along with religious and political meetings, processions and protests, funerals and fights – lives lived in great part on the glare of the street, since privacy was so limited.

Then there is the palette. Grey-white skies and a black that, on occasion, is every bit as rich and deep as that of Manet, the father of ‘modern’ art – the exhibition is called Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life quite deliberately.

Then muted blues and yellows that are occasionally allowed more vibrancy – VE Day is a case in point.

The Lake, 1937
But alongside the black and the grey-white, the dominant colour throughout is red: not just for the red bricks, but for a tie or a hat here and there, or piece of fencing, sometimes in isolation in a scene of dereliction, like a narrow gravestone askance.

Indeed, in The Lake (1937) and Gate Posts (1938) these occur in landscapes of ruin and pollution – scenes that suggest disaster. Lowry, the early environmentalist?

This is the other consequence of industrialisation – the one beyond Empire; the one that The Establishment does not want to have brought to mind.

It was also brought to mind, though, this despoiling of England, by Danny Boyle – a Lancastrian himself – in his 2012 Olympic opening ceremony.

St Augustine's Church, Pendlebury, 1924
Yet the palette can change too, when the subject demands. The pastel, The Lodging House (1921) has a depth of blueness that seems to very obviously invoke Valette, his one-time teacher.

And in the two seaside scenes exhibited, the colours different again – in Beach Scene, Lytham (1963), they fade to gentle pastels on the sails on the yachts at sea.

Yet again, the Welsh landscapes allow for more green, although it's hardly a vibrant one: here too, industry had taken its toll on the countryside.

The artist's observation is extraordinary, yet also almost ridiculously easy to miss.

View from the Window ...
In Coming from the Mill (1930), for example, in the right foreground, the horse that's having to be reined back as it tries to bolt with the cart behind it. A little detail, yet half hidden behind a low wall.

In other words, these works require more than a passing glance – and reward patience.

View from the Window of the Royal Technical College, a pencil on paper from 1924, reveals not only great skill, but also creative composition, as Lowry extended the vast chimney off the paper, as though it was endless.

From the same year, St Augustine's Church, Pendlebury has enormous depth: it seems to suggest religion louring over all, almost as much as the workplace, an idea that comes again with A Street Scene (St Simon’s Church) from 1928, which is almost monochrome, but for a few hints of red on clothing.

Junction Street, Stony Brow, Ancoats, Manchester, 1929
Junction Street, Stony Brow, Ancoats, Manchester, another pencil on paper from 1929, has not. Single figure in it, but the way it draws the eye is magnificent.

The line drawings reveal very clearly that Lowry was a superb draughtsman. He didn't paint “matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs” because that was all that he could paint (and Brian & Michael should never be forgiven for such sentimental drivel, which Lowry himself would have hated), but as a deliberate part of the language he created.

His figures so often become ants in a vast, dour world, hurrying on with bent backs and heads down; their individuality lost in the brutalising nature of the industrial setting.

Self Portrait, 1966
And yet there is beauty here too; or if not beauty, then a certain majesty. For anyone who has lived in areas where the architecture of industry is still present, if reduced, Lowry’s paintings have an emotional resonance.

But perhaps we – and I use the word deliberately – can now let Lowry go, at least a little. He no longer needs quite the championing. He belongs to the world now – not just the industrialised north.

It would be difficult for the Osbornes of this world to leave him out of any future encyclopaedic work on art, even if they have been able to largely silence and delete from reality the brick and mortar of the landscape that he painted, for which they no longer have a use.

Lowry himself was a man of contradictions. Who isn’t? A Conservative, yet one who set out to portray the working class, he approved of the NHS: compare pre- and post-NHS paintings; A Northern Hospital from 1929 with the calm and noticeably brighter palate of Ancoats Hospital Outpatients Hall from 1952.

He also rejected a knighthood on the grounds that: “all my life I have felt most strongly against social distinction of any kind”: in fact, he holds the record for rejecting more honours than anyone else – five. Perhaps The Establishment’s issue has been, in part, resentment that he never wanted to become part of it?

Industrial Scene with a Monument, 1972
I do wonder whether the curators have missed one slight trick, though.

As mentioned in that previous post on Lowry, some of his non-industrial scenes convey a loneliness and an isolation that could also be seen as a symptom of ‘modern’ life.

Only in one of the final canvases of this exhibition, Industrial Scene with Monument from 1972, is it hinted at.

The monument recalls the Self Portrait from 1966, which had a similar ‘monument’ sticking up, in utter isolation, from the sea.

Here, in the last years of his life, Lowry seems to have added himself to his landscape; observing all from a position of isolation.

And here, in an exhibition for which Clark and Wagner, together with Helen Little from the Tate itself, should be massively applauded, Lowry has been able to take centre stage, finally, as one of the most important British artists of the 20th century.

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