Magazine article The Spectator

Lowry, the Magician

Magazine article The Spectator

Lowry, the Magician

Article excerpt

Exhibitions Lowry, the magician L. S. Lowry Crane Kalman Gallery, 178 Brompton Road, London SW3, until 1 November

Right from the start, I have to say that I am strongly biased in Lowry's favour. The first major show of his work I saw, as an enthusiastic schoolboy in 1976, was at the Royal Academy; I still have the catalogue and frequently refer to it. It was only the second retrospective of a modern British artist I had seen, following the Paul Nash at the Tate the year before, and I was deeply impressed. It was put on just after the old man had died, and the show attracted more than 300,000 visitors. Two years later, a pop song about Lowry euphoniously entitled 'Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs', and written by Michael Coleman and Brian Burke, reached No. 1 in the charts. I can't remember whether I liked it at the time (I rather suspect not) but over the years it has for me come to represent so many of the misconceptions which surround the man and the artist.

Principally, there's the claim that he was a naive painter only capable of the most basic shorthand in depicting the human figure - in other words, matchstick men. This simply isn't the case. It's true that Lowry often made use of schematised outlines, a little like petroglyphs, but this was a deliberate decision - as he himself said, 'natural figures would have broken the spell'. His own particular brand of magic depended on employing figures that looked half-unreal in order to capture the essence of the industrial scene. (Something like the idea of automatons working a treadmill.) If you care to examine the work he did as a student, drawing from the model, you will see at once that he had a firm understanding of classical draughtsmanship, and was more than capable of employing it when it suited him. But, by and large, it didn't suit his purpose.

The reason for discussing Lowry's particular talents now is twofold. There is an exhibition of his paintings and drawings, mostly borrowed from private collections, on view for a very short time at a commercial gallery in London. The show - which I urge you to visit - is of museum quality (a larger version was shown at The Lowry in Salford), and has been mounted in order to launch a book which I have helped to write. It is called L. S. Lowry: Conversation Pieces. Andras Kalman in conversation with Andrew Lambirth, and is published by Chaucer Press at L25. Andras Kalman is the founder of the Crane Kalman Gallery, formerly of Manchester but long since of Knightsbridge. He first met Lowry around 1950, soon grew friendly with him and began to exhibit and sell examples of his work. The two men spent time together, and Kalman has a fund of stories which illuminate both the artist and his work.

The heart of the book is Kalman's personal selection of 80 of his favourite Lowrys, with an individual commentary on each one. This is set in context by an introduction and chronology devoted to Lowry, and by Kalman's history of the gallery. The tone of the book is relaxed and informal, based on reminiscence and appreciation, much of the text adapted from numerous taped conversations between Andras and myself. It is not intended as a ground-breaking monograph which demands instant reappraisal of a much-maligned artist (though someone should attempt this very soon); it is the celebration of a partnership between an artist and a dealer, who were also friends. …

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