Magazine article New Criterion

"Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life"

Magazine article New Criterion

"Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life"

Article excerpt

"Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life"

Tate Britain, London.

June 26-October 20, 2013

L. S. Lowry (1887-1976) was the leading painter of old industrial Britain, of the crowded streets of Lancashire cotton towns dominated by factory chimneys and oblong, chunky mills. Now that the industrial North of England and the mining and steel towns of South Wales, which he also painted, have subsided into obsolescence and Rust Belt--decay, it can hardly be said that these are portrayals of modern life. But file scenes in his pictures were very modern when he painted them; such is the speed of change of modernity.

Lowry's work was immensely popular with ordinary folk in Britain who hung reproductions of his paintings on the walls of their homes. Lowry, who worked for forty-two years as a local rent collector, painted what he knew and what they knew. Fashionable metropolitan curators and artists rarely visited, let alone painted, the industrial areas--they saw them as grim, as regional, as unfit subjects for art. They never visited the provincial museums where much of Lowry's work was on display. They were condescending when the socialistic Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who had a Lancashire constituency and on suitable occasions a Yorkshire accent, hung a Lowry on the main wall of his office and used one as a Christmas card. It was part of his shaky fake attempt to seem a gritty man of the people. Scorn met the appearance of one of Lowry's most popular paintings, Coming out of School (1929), on a high denomination British postage stamp in 1968. In Paris Lowry was taken seriously, but his critics in England falsely suggested that he was self-taught, even though he had studied at three different art schools in the North of England and had been instructed by Pierre Adolphe Valette, a French Impressionist. Some of the less perceptive British critics are still claiming that his reputation seriously declined in the years after his death and call him a bad artist. This excellent exhibition shows how very, very wrong they all are.

The men and women in the crowded streets of Lowry's towns are stick-like figures, almost as if children had drawn them, but what is wrong with that? In their very different ways, Joan Miro and Paul Klee knew full well the value of a child-like style. When groups of school children are taken to the Lowry Museum in his home town of Salford, they immediately understand his work, much as children in Berne, Switzerland do when brought to the Zentrum Patti Klee.

Lowry carefully arranged his stick-like figures in blocks, and these blocks capture a social reality--that of people who lived a mass existence. In this sense, they were truly "the masses" In Coming Home from the Mill (1928) and Returning from Work (1929), we see the people streaming home or tiredly trudging back at the end of a long shift. In Going to the Match (1953), the crowd is heading purposefully towards the terraces of the stadium where a soccer match will soon begin. Lowry was a keen fan of the game. In Football Match (1949), the crowd clusters like ants around the implied perimeter of an unfenced football pitch. A rectangle of people surrounds a rectangle of open ground and they in turn are hemmed in by both the cotton mills where they work and the lines of terrace houses where they live. All these pictures are a reminder of an era when Britain had a large, orderly, disciplined working class. Lowry painted the modern life of the recent past, a modernity that has become history.

There are often interesting and amusing things happening within Lowry's more cheerful and colorful crowds who are enjoying a holiday, as in V. …

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