The Painting of Modern Life: LS Lowry at the Tate Britain, by Helena Roy

When posters started popping up on the Tube for an exhibition of LS Lowry’s work, I was initially (and ignorantly) sceptical. I had only seen the work of this oft-derided artist on superfluous memorabilia, with his little matchstick men making a pretty background for various tea towels and notebooks. So I wandered through the Tate Britain with mild, unconvinced curiosity…

But LS Lowry is one of those artists that come to define the era they work in. To visit this exhibition is to be transported back to aftermath of the Industrial Revolution – from its noisy beginnings to polluted wane.

Though Lowry’s style is often mocked as cartoonish, the exhibition is serious and solemn. Similar work by (mainly French) contemporaries is displayed: York Street leading to Charles Street, Manchester (1913), by Adolphe Valette, shows lights of perpetual industrialisation glowing in gloomy darkness; works by Van Gogh, Camille Pissarro and Maurice Utrillo further encapsulate the feeling of the period.

'York Street Leading to Charles Street, Manchester' (1913) by Adolphe Valette
'Outskirts of Paris' (1886) by Van Gogh shows a similar, dank industrialisation

Lowry enjoyed an affluent childhood, but his family experienced a distinct drop in social standing resulting in a move to the industrial suburb of Pendlebury. His reaction to his surroundings went from loathing to obsession. A solid Lancashire Conservative, his paintings are emotionally distant – perhaps reflecting discomfort with his ambiguous social class. Unique works stand out as offering some personal insight: pencil sketches with anomalous realism; and The Sea (1963) which, though not in the exhibition, is peaceful and organic in contrast to the man-made starkness of his typical landscapes.

'The Sea' (1963) by Lowry

But if Lowry’s paintings do not give a picture of the individual, they give a scenic view of society at the time. He said: ‘I have a one-track mind. I only deal with poverty. Always with gloom.’ Emotional remoteness makes his style an absolute political commentary. One review in 1928 called his work a ‘moral essay’. He shows the power of industrialisation when it has a shot at morphing society to suit its development. Cities are depicted where industry steadily crawls over culture – foundries, cotton mills, glass works all abut slabs of terraced housing, which increasingly resemble the blocks of the factories themselves.

'Oldfield Road Dwellings' (1927) by Lowry

Lowry shows the operatic clash between industrialisation’s frantic chaos and the steady British calm: he is at once humorous and bleak, affectionate and despairing. Paintings of churches – such as Saint Augustine’s Church, Pendlebury (1924) – show imposing, Gothic structures masked by industry’s black smoke and dwarfed by factories’ towers, as industrial values dominate the moral: this was the age of business and social mobility. A Football Match (1949) shows the integral role the Football League played in working class life from the late 19th century, and stooped men file into the stadium as they would the mill or mine.

'Saint Augustine's Church, Pendlebury' (1924) by Lowry
'A Football Match' (1949) by Lowry

His idiosyncratic ‘matchstick men’ are the stars of his landscapes. He resolutely believed ‘a country landscape is fine without people, but an industrial set without people is an empty shell.’ Lithe, moribund figures are actors on the stage of industrialisation. Clothed in gloomy drapes and caps, they walk with a slanting, tired intent, staring downwards as new constructions tower over them. Emotion is near-impossible to interpret, but Lowry admitted ‘they are symbols of my mood, they are myself. Natural figures would have broken the spell of my vision, so I made them half unreal.’

The cold blankness of his subjects is reserved, but his paintings still communicate with the visitor. The Industrial Revolution is a static, intense period of our history – one we could never recreate. But Lowry’s work, though not melodramatic, conveys the period’s traditional, brusque nature. There is no warmth to be found when a tidal wave of industrial values is sweeping the nation: experiencing at once society decaying and industry thriving.

'Pit Tragedy' (1919) by Lowry

In later years he became more cartoonish – capturing the pop of post-war decades. Fun Fair at Daisy Nook (1953) crackles with a staccato of atypical colour, and Piccadilly Circus, London (1960) blares the perpetual Coca-Cola logo, meshing the start of Americanisation in post-war Britain with Lowry’s recognisable industrialisation.

'Fun Fair at Daisy Nook' (1953) by Lowry
'Piccadilly Circus, London' (1960) by Lowry

The grand finale of the exhibit is a series of five stunning panoramas, painted between 1950 and 1955 – the first time all have been united in one place. None are based on one location, but rather are amalgamated fragments of Lowry’s memory and imagination. This isn’t the history of one place, but the backdrop of all society. With soaring, stretching perspective they compound waste ground on bustling streets and industrious factories. Britain was an ordered wilderness of a society, thrown by the new industry thrust upon it.

Lowry’s retrospective imparts not only artistic spectacle, but an enlightening economic and social commentary. He was fascinated by the ‘battle of life’ and urban fabric. His vivid picture of the Industrial Revolution is an important part of our heritage that should not be neglected. No other artist faced the social change so persistently and characteristically. Though he polarises sentiments, even within a single painting, the intangible absence in his art is unique to experience. He interpreted the change that swept over the nation in a way photographs cannot: realism threaded with eerie confusion as to how this laborious volte invaded Britain.

With thanks to Wikipedia, the BBC, the Guardian, culture24.org.uk and thedabbler.co.uk for photos.

‘Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life’ will be exhibited at the Tate Modern until 20 October. Details can be found at http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/lowry-and-painting-modern-life.

Note

Lowry captured the Industrial Revolution in art, whilst others – most notably George Orwell – did so in other mediums. Boldly printed in the Tate’s rooms is this extract from The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), by Orwell. It describes the bleak, frigid, apocalyptic environment Lowry painted:

‘I remember a winter afternoon in the dreadful environs of Wigan. All round was the lunar landscape of slag heaps and to the north, through the passes, as it were, between the mountains of slag, you could see the factory chimneys sending out their plumes of smoke. The canal path was a mixture of cinders and frozen mud, criss-crossed by the imprints of innumerable clogs, and all round, as far as the slag heaps in the distance, stretched the “flashes” – pools of stagnant water that had seeped into the hollows caused by the subsidence of ancient pits. It was horribly cold. The “flashes” were covered with the ice the colour of raw umber, the bargemen were muffled to the eyes in sacks, the lock gates wore tears of ice. It seemed a world from which vegetation had been banished; nothing existed except smoke, shale, ice, mud, ashes and foul water.’

 

 

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