Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life

July 22, 2013 / Arts and Culture

By DG

An art exhibition with a strong, yeasty flavour.

Tate Britain

Until 20 October 2013

Admission £15

 

Both Marmite and Lowry have polarised Britain. Even the curators at the press view were more than a touch tentative, acknowledging there was a great divide between the devotees and the cynics, but hoping that this exhibition would persuade the doubters that there was more to Lowry than scores of little hunched figures on their way to work at the mill or scores of little hunched figures on their way home again. Or scores of little hunched figures at a football match, or a fairground, or a cricket match, or on a boating lake. Hundreds of them. Painting after painting, full of little hunched people, against a grim backdrop of mills, chimney stacks belching out smoke and flat skies. Lowry’s reputation has suffered over the years, particularly in his homeland, although he did have some critical success in France.

The organisers have included a number of French works by Pissarro, Utrillo, Seurat and his tutor at Manchester School of Art, Adolphe Valette, whose paintings of urban life at night have a whiff of Atkinson Grimshaw, but without the spark. There is even van Gogh’s oil of the outskirts of Paris, painted the year before Lowry was born, which is a puzzling inclusion. By showing his attempts alongside these others only serves to highlight the fact that he was simply not a very good painter. There, I’ve said it. He is not a naïve painter, as he had formal training; it is not outsider art, as he was in the mainstream world of galleries and museums; he is not a folk artist. What is he? The merchandise in the shop at Tate Britain says it all - Lowry placemats, Lowry coasters, Lowry tea trays (rectangular or circular), Lowry mugs, Lowry tote bags, Lowry cufflinks and Lowry silk ties are all part and parcel of this, and most other ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions these days, but the inclusion of a ‘Lowry’ flat cap at £28, is either a postmodern ironic statement or just downright patronising. The chasm that has opened up between those for and against Lowry is nothing to do with elitism or snobbery, or a north-south divide, or working class versus the middle class. It is to do with quality, and, frankly, he just doesn’t cut the mustard.

One thing that stands out about his subjects in this exhibition, is that he never gets close up and personal, and his people are mostly little dots in the landscape, as he never actually engages with his subject, painting poverty, suffering and everyday life in Manchester from a distance. This is a shame, as some of his portraits have a rawness and wit about them, redolent of Bernard Buffet. One painting, however, 6, should have a dynamic evoking the tough world of construction in the city, and yet, we are offered another distant view of a few dark figures with ladders, wheelbarrows and shovels. Compare this feeble attempt to three paintings exhibited at the RA a few months ago by George Bellows, in which the American depicted slices of urban realism in his views of Penn Station being excavated, both at night and in the snow, full of drama, dynanism and life. One painting from 1946 entitled Snow in Manchester is a rare example of a genuinely atmospheric composition, as is his Industrial Landscape, Wigan from 1925 in the gallery called Ruined Landscapes. Alongside is a quote from George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, who described ‘the lunar landscape of slag heaps’ and ‘a world from which vegetation had been banished; nothing existed except smoke, shale, ice, mud, ashes and foul water.’ Apart from these few successful portrayals of urban life, which includes the slightly quirky A Protest March from 1959, Lowry is pretty much destined to remain as placemat art, under the dinner plates of the British nation.

 

Originally published in Kensington and Chelsea Today.

www.dongrant.co.uk

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