When my companion suggested that we go to the Lowry exhibition at Tate Britain, my reaction was lukewarm at best. Surrounded by Lowry as we are in Manchester, one feels as though Lowry’s ‘matchstick men and matchstick cats and dogs’ are too well known as it is. And the exhibition has also divided the critics; from Brian Sewell’s demolition job in the Standard, to John Barrell’s lengthy encomium in the LRB. The viewing public, however, has flocked to this the first major retrospective of Lowry’s work since the Royal Academy exhibition in the mid-seventies; the Saturday morning my companion and I went, the Tate rooms were full, if not, fortunately, unbearable.
The works are spread through six thematically organised rooms, beginning with ‘Looking at Lowry’ which claims to present ‘his strongest’ work encompassing ‘his feeling for the packed spaces of the street’, through to the final room of ‘The Industrial Landscapes’ with larger and later canvases of urban landscapes from not only around Manchester, but also, and surprisingly to this viewer, from Wales as well. The second room ‘The Idea of Modern Life’ responds to the idea that Lowry’s work not only reflects his absorption of French impressionism, but was also accepted by the French before the British; between 1928 and 1933, his paintings were regularly accepted for the spring and summer Paris Salons. As such, in the midst of Lowry’s paintings are an Utrillo, a Pissarro, and Van Gogh’s ‘Outskirts of Paris.’ This latter is painted with a similar palette to Lowry’s browns and greens, and shows the terrain vague around Paris, sparsely populated and with a single street lamp, as the caption puts it, ‘as if waiting for a street to light.’
In this room, the viewer is confronted by the way in which Lowry’s titles almost sacralize the generic: ‘A Northern Hospital’, ‘A Manufacturing Town’, ‘The Park’, ‘A Lancashire Village’. And even later in his career, many paintings are called ‘Industrial Landscape’. In these, Lowry’s well-known placing of thin figures in a landscape occurs on canvas after canvas. It was my recollection of these kinds of Lowry figures that no one ever touches in them, so that in ‘The Arrest’, the arrest of the man in the picture is all the more shocking because of the contrast of the physical contact of the subject matter, and the isolation of the figures around. In the larger landscapes, the figures can appear as part of a tide of humanity moving in similar directions with a similar tread, but individually picked out, thus individually isolated. In these pictures, Lowry evokes an industrial landscape in which both anomie and community are yoked in a dark symbiosis.
But I was wrong; in the paintings, people often hold hands, though the ant-like dogs ( a video shows him painting a dog in six seconds!) are never on leads. In ‘Fun Fair: Good Friday, Daisy Nook’ of 1946, two soldiers, possibly old comrades, hug each other. However, in their dark coats, the de-mob suits, and the battered caps and trilbies that Lowry gave his women and men, humans often do seem forever cut off from each other.
In a retrospective like this, there are always going to be discoveries. For me, this came quite early, in room 3, ‘Street Life: Incident and Accident’, with its background George Formby, and Mitchell and Kenyon videos. Here, there are three lovely pencil drawings of the Ancoats district of Manchester, including an exquisitely simple view of the incline of a cobbled street. In the next room ‘Ruined Landscapes’, Lowry’s paintings concentrate on the effect of both the industrialisation and bombing on Lancashire. There is a change in the rhythm of these pictures. The use of blues in the pictures, and the close ups of the ruined landscapes mean that both building and people bulk larger. In ‘Industrial Landscape: Wigan’, a brief row of terraced houses, is picked out in a blood red amidst the black bulks of chimneys and factory buildings. In ‘Blitzed Site’ from 1942, again it is the reds and mustards that pick out the broken wood of joists and pillars. There is often a kind of chiaroscuro effect in these pictures, with the grey-white sky seeping into the middles of the pictures with a dulled impasto. In the background, the mill chimneys stick up out of the cloud of pale landscape, like marram grass out of sand. And Lowry is actually a great painter of the contours of the land underneath industrialisation.
If Lowry is the great ‘marmite’ painter of the twentieth century, it is, we might suggest, because he has become the victim of his own success. If, initially, he represented the north to itself, his paintings then became the north, and it’s no surprise that the, then, Manchester Guardian was one of his earliest supporters, even offering him the position of its art critic; a position he, perhaps wisely, turned down. We now see the north through the prism of Lowry, and it is no surprise, either, that both Mitchell and Kenyon and George Formby are drawn into his ambit. Unlike like much other contemporary art, Lowry invented the language by which he is appreciated; and that language is, yes, repetitive and limited, and because of that accessible. In the exhibition, people were talking about the paintings. But better that, surely, than the kinds of contemporary art, which you need a degree to articulate, and which sits frostily waiting for the critics to step up and articulate its ‘concepts’.