A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The current blockbuster exhibition at Tate Modern is Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life and this book is its catalogue. So this will be mostly personal reaction to the paintings and part review of this attractive, informative and lively book.
Lowry’s work is instantly recognisable and holds a distinctive place in the English (or do I mean British) heart and mind. The Pavlovian response to the name Lowry is ‘matchstick people’. The most reproduced of his paintings feature these well known crowds of tiny faceless people in an urban landscape, and they tend to raise the question of Lowry’s vision of them. I’ve never seen his work apart from single paintings in national and local collections (I have yet to visit the gallery in Salford that has his name) and I was surprised by the effect on me of absorbing his work over the space of six rooms and his many decades of work. The effect on me was rather like minimalist music – repetitive, but with meaning and intent behind the repetition. I also found myself paying far more attention to Lowry as a landscape painter, and surprised myself by my reactions and the connections that I made with other artists – given that of all 20th century British artists Lowry may be the most distinctive and easily recognised. I was also moved to think about how far Lowry was a chronicler of life and change in the places and communities from which he drew his inspiration.
I blithely promised to write this review, but I’m always a little nervous about writing about art – I consider that I don’t have the language or critical framework. So this is very much about my personal reaction to Lowry, and what the exhibition with its particular curation and the essays in the catalogue taught me.
There is a sense in which this exhibition seemed to me to be an attempt to rescue Lowry from his late 20th century fate as a popular artist, representing the cutting edge for people who aspire to something more respectable (as they see it) than Tretchikoff’s Green Lady or Van Gogh Sunflowers on their walls. Pointing out as the authors do at the start of the book that a Lowry print on the wall features in Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party locates his work on the spectrum of popular taste with sickening accuracy. His palette is a colour scheme. His angular cityscapes have a unique decorative effect and his ‘little people’ are set-dressing.
Lowry’s landscape was the industrial towns of the North-west, with their factories and cotton mills, railways, mines, public buildings and spaces, rows of workers’ dwellings and, of course, people in the mass. His background in the lower middle class ensured a measure of security for him through office jobs, then for most of his adult working life the job of a rent collector in the streets that he portrayed – not loved, not loathed, just a part of the fabric of people’s lives. So he stood aside from the people he portrayed, a detached observer who nevertheless was privy to their secrets.
From a young age he took art classes at Manchester College of Art, under the notable late impressionist Adolphe Valette (see Bookfox Moira’s review of his work here), whose paintings of Manchester and Salford give an equally striking but completely different record of the man-made landscape. Lowry’s approach to painting people was for me interestingly revealed in the fact that Valette, who championed his work, nevertheless despaired of his work in Life Class – and it amused me to contrast Lowry’s skilled but weirdly empty line drawings of stiffly posed groups of people with the energetic and exciting drawings of the city that he made while staring out of the windows of the art college. It was intriguing to learn that early on he exhibited more often and with greater success in France, in the Paris Autumn Salon, where his work was regularly hung and his debt to late Impressionists such as Utrillo and Pissarro acknowledged. Seeing his work in this exhibition hung next to works by these painters and Seurat and Van Gogh was illuminating.
Lowry chose his subject matter with serious intent and as, as we know, returned to it again and again for well over fifty years. As it happens, he charted the arc of the decline of heavy industry in his home city, and by extension the whole of Britain. He found what he called ‘the industrial scene’ full of meaning for him, and often expressed this. I saw the industrial scene and I was affected by it. I tried to paint it. All the time I tried to paint the industrial scene as well as I could. It wasn’t easy. I wanted to get a certain effect on canvas. I couldn’t describe it, but I knew it when I’d got it. Well, a camera could have done the scene straight off. That was no use to me – I wanted to get an industrial scene and be satisfied with the picture.
This is just one of the very aptly chosen passages in Lowry’s own words in the exhibition catalogue, in an essay that takes pains to let Lowry’s character come through as he speaks for himself about his art and its inspiration. In another passage Lowry describes how the landscape seems to be alive – he regularly takes a long walk from his Salford home to Bolton; on the way the road passes directly over Kearsley colliery and he can feel and hear the beat of the machinery under his feet and all around him (I found that particularly moving as I know that part of the world, silent now apart from motorway noise).
So it was the landscape that obsessed him, particularly the way the eye is drawn through the cliff like buildings and the towers and chimneys to the foggy horizon and the smokey sky. The people are part of the landscape, and their ebb and flow, gathering and parting, make them behave rather like iron filings in the presence of a magnet. This might be a building – are they going to work, coming home, headed for a football match, waiting to been seen by a doctor in hospital?; or an outdoor event: an argument or fight, an accident in the street, a hearse to follow. In this way, the people in the painting are part of the larger landscape, dwarfed by it, conceivably, but still, as it were, visible from space, or at any rate from the vantage point chosen by the painter.
Walking through rooms of his work and looking at them more carefully than I have before, two things struck me. The matchstick people (though they became more stylised possibly as the years went on) do have life and movement and individuality, if I look at them closely, even when acting collectively. They have a destination or a purpose, or if neither of these then a reason to be there (if only as a loafer). For instance, in one of his massive landscapes from the 1950s, which need to be scanned minutely as well as looked at from afar, in a group of minute people one man has climbed onto a truck and is haranguing the rest. The second was that, by the time of these enormous paintings, this landscape had taken on an aura of fantasy. The point of view is higher, soaring over an almost cartographic view of an industrial scene that has more fantasy than reality. The buildings have air and space between them now. The ground shades from Tarmac to water to waste ground. The monumental buildings pit churches with their spires with mills and their chimneys, factories with public buildings. In my mind I contrasted this with Valette, who managed to infuse documentary paintings of actual locations with a dream-like beauty, and also (this is very odd, shoot me now) I compared the Lowry canvases with John Martin’s massive and lavish series on Heaven and Hell – Ashton-under-Lyne vs The Plains of Heaven. I have no real idea why I made that connection, except that it had the same sort of effect on me, of space and soaring heights, rather than the claustrophobia and confinement that form the usual effect of industrial cities with their mills and factories cheek by jowl.
The catalogue is an enjoyable companion to the exhibition. As well as the plates, there are two very readable essays: T J Clark’s essay in biography, locating Lowry in his world and his class, and exploring the ambiguities of Lowry’s detachment as an observer, politically conservative yet engaged in what he referred to to as ‘social awareness’. The other is by Anne M Wagner on the trajectory of Lowry’s art – enlightening on the nuanced development to be found in his repetitive themes. There is also a chronological essay by Helen Little, locating the milestones in Lowry’s life and career with the wider historical context.
Altogether, I have enjoyed my voyage of discovery of a painter whose work it is easy to see reproduced all around, and consequently easy to think one knows all about. Much food for thought here, and for me a fresh appreciation of the strange beauty of his chosen scene.
If you cannot go to the exhibition (which ends on 20 October), you can get a flavour of his work online from these sites:
The Lowry, Salford (though naturally they want you to visit, so only a few of the 400 items in the Lowry collection are on show)
BBC Your Paintings – LS Lowry (in partnership with the Public Catalogue Foundation) This is the fantastic website that catalogues all paintings known to be in the ownership of publicly funded bodies.
T J Clark and Anne M Wagner: Lowry and the painting of modern life. London: Tate Publishing Ltd, 2013. 224pp
ISBN 13: 9781849761222