This article originally appeared on Left Futures, 18th July 2013
For at least five years, I’ve had a large LS Lowry print hanging on my wall. It’s mounted on a battered old bit of chipboard, and bought at a market, and the scene depicted is fairly typical: a snowy industrial landscape, a lake covered in ice-skaters.
When I was given the print, I had never consciously viewed the artist’s work, but the landscape was nonetheless familiar. It is not the case, as Brian Sewell argues, that Lowry painted a landscape which cannot be uncoupled from the 1920s. To some extent, this was the backdrop that shaped my mother’s childhood, vividly described again and again, its remnants and horizon still visible on numerous trips to visit family in Oldham. True, it was not the same without the crowds – on one trip I remember killing several hours in the completely deserted town centre filled with derelict buildings that had once been Oldham’s municipal pride. Watch Ken Russell’s Monitor on Shelagh Delaney’s Salford – incidentally the town, along with Pendlebury, that is the subject of most of Lowry’s paintings – and you’ll see the same spirit there too, even though this was 1960, not 1920.
Lowry’s strength is surely his use of architectural precision to bring the North’s spectacular scenery not only to life, but into visual synthesis with the people who all too often are unable to appreciate the views that others would kill for. Lowry’s crowds are purposeful, whether the purpose is employment or enjoyment; they are embedded within the landscape but almost unconscious of it.
Yet there is a tension at work. Between, on the one hand, Lowry’s celebration of the masses and determination to take the industrial landscape seriously in art, and on the other, perspectives that seem almost-paternalistic. This is the essence of LS Lowry. Derided (and sometimes celebrated) for his ‘matchstick men’, it seems that the difficulty of Lowry’s politics has led some critics to take the easy way out. Professional snob Brian Sewell applies his ‘art historical severity’ in the Evening Standard, arguing that Lowry was never neglected at all, and has in fact been over-rated for half a century. But he misses the point: as Jeanette Winterson puts it, Lowry is “popular but unfashionable”. For all of Lowry being championed by the Queen Mum and Macmillan, Wilson and Heath, the likes of Sewell have always tacitly derided this line-up in turn for their parochialism, vulgarity and lack of taste.
The current Tate exhibition, Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life, makes some effort to place him in the context of French impressionism, despite his “mixed feelings about Monet and company”. Sewell is perhaps right to place him within the neglected context of other depictors of industrial life, but Lowry’s work has comparisons wider than the Camden Town Group’s Charles Ginner.
Returning from Work has echoes in title as well as content of Edvard Munch’s Workers Returning Home. The faces are just as solemn. The faces in the backdrop of Munch’s work are literally blank, but close-up, the viewer must directly confront the anonymity and automation of industrial labour. Moreover, this encounter seems forced not by the artist, but by the workers themselves. Lowry’s hurrying figures are conscious not of us and their landscape, but certainly of what lies immediately ahead in both space and time.
Most interestingly, intent and purpose is equally apparent on the faces of the three figures hurrying in the opposite direction and the stationary child-sized man with his back to the wall: the purpose seen in the accuracy of Lowry’s lines is a state of mind pervading work and leisure alike.
No sooner are we immersed in the most expressive closer-up interpretations of the working-class mentality, the exhibition grants us a break of sorts, in the fourth room, titled ‘Ruined Landscape’. Cumberland Landscape is little more than a horizon but its tone gives the reaching grasses qualities of the sea. Lowry was sparse in his use of rich colours, so the reds of the awfully symmetrical The Lake take on a heavy connotation of danger.
The next room considers Lowry’s uneasy embrace of the 1945 Labour government. For all the talk of the artist’s Toryism only altered in his support for Wilson in the 60s, these pictures display a noted support for the new age of socialism, as noted by the exhibition’s curators, even if the brighter colours ring of cynical irony as well as optimism.
It could never be simple. For me, the most striking painting of the entire exhibition was A Protest March, which depicts a prism-shaped block of intent protestors hurrying through a residential street. Residents gawp from the pavement, and the faces of the demonstrators are too developed to be Lowry’s normal working-class crowd: this sort of behaviour seems alien to the mentality he depicts elsewhere, and it shows. For Lowry, the political demonstration is something that hurries past, preferably as quickly as possible.
In the gift shop, there are numerous books on offer: on the north, working class life, the impressionists. A woman standing next to me at the bookshelf reads out one title of a book dealing with the Attlee age in remarks to a friend: “Austerity Britain. How apt.”
“The difference was,” I interject, “that despite having a deficit twice the size of what we have now, that government embarked on the biggest council house building programme ever.” She nodded in agreement.
“Look at a Lowry and you are looking at a rebuke to that class whose wealth depends upon the ceaseless labour of others,” writes Winterson, in an analysis she admits Lowry “would have laughed at”. Lowry was no socialist, but for his use of the industrial landscape and the working class as serious subjects, he will still be pilloried by the ‘cultured’ establishment for some time yet.
- Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life, Tate Britain, until October 20th.
UPDATE: This article was amended on the day of publication to connect Shelagh Delaney and Lowry via the city of Salford.