Lowry’s Matchstick Men Bring Urban Nightmares to Tate
The sun never shines in the paintings of L.S. Lowry.
His skies are filled with that dreariest of all meteorological conditions, white cloud.
Beneath it spreads a panorama of smoking factory chimneys, gloomy buildings and mean streets along which trudge an army of people with spindly limbs, big feet and hunched shoulders.
The lasting impression is Hieronymus Bosch without the pizzazz: a quiet day in Hell.
Lowry (1887-1976) divides people. A couple of years ago I fell into conversation with a doughty northern Englander, who launched into an attack on the Tate Gallery.
Why, he wanted to know, had there not been a major Lowry exhibition in London for more than 30 years? To him, it was obvious that Lowry was the great artist of industrial northern England (and probably a victim of southern prejudice).
Others look at his work and see naive and provincial pictures, full of matchstick men.
Now Tate Britain has put on that big exhibition my friend was demanding. “Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life” is an opportunity to take his reputation out of the pending tray and make up our minds. How good was he really?
The answer is complicated. There is no question that Lowry was an extremely repetitive painter.
“I’ve a one track mind”, he used to say. “I only deal with poverty; always with gloom.”
His subject matter was highly limited, and the exhibition makes it seem more so by underplaying some aspects such as his portraits. Lowry’s obsessional theme was the urban sprawl of Victorian Manchester, where he was born and spent his entire life (working in the dismal profession of rent collecting).
This exhibition makes a strong case that he was much more than a reclusive eccentric. But I don’t think the curators have made quite the right comparisons. Their argument is that Lowry was engaged in the task that the poet Charles Baudelaire set for 19th-century French artists -- that is, painting modern life.
On this theory, Lowry was a later, Mancunian equivalent to such masters as Manet. Accordingly, the Tate has some Parisian paintings by Van Gogh and Utrillo beside Lowrys. While this is a bold move, historically it doesn’t quite convince.
It’s true that Lowry was taught, and obviously influenced by, a French Impressionist named Adolphe Valette. Lowry’s work, though, is not realist, it’s more visionary. The visual comparisons are with a different tradition: the lugubrious, also surreal and fantastical painters of northern Europe and America.
His slightly sinister churches put you in mind of the German romantic Caspar David Friedrich. The grotesque figures have more in common with the nightmare crowds of the Belgian painter Ensor than with Degas or Manet.
The sense of somber isolation sometimes suggests the lonely world of Edward Hopper.
All of these parallels make Lowry seem like an important artist, and he actually was -- even if for much of his long life he was producing variations on a single image.
That lack of variety makes him an unsuitable subject for a large exhibition such as this.
On the other hand, there’s nothing else like it in 20th-century art. It was a compelling, dreary apocalypse that -- as Lowry pointed out -- had its own beauty. It was not a mirror of reality, however. Even in Lowry’s Manchester, the sky must sometimes have been blue.
The Lowry show opened this week and runs through October 20 at Tate Britain, Millbank, SW1P 4RG, London. Information: http://www.tate.org.uk or +44-20-7887-8888.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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