Strange as it may sound, given the somewhat unassuming nature of his work, there are few artists in British history who have inspired as much controversy and debate as LS Lowry (1 November 1887 – 23 February 1976). An outsider in his personal and professional life, the Lancashire painter has divided critics ever since he came to prominence in the 1930s: some hail him as the artist of twentieth-century Britain, while others vehemently dismiss him as nothing more than a naive simpleton both in his art and his intellect.
So there’s a lot riding on the first exhibition of his work, Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life, at Tate Britain in London. Though the gallery actually bought some of Lowry’s paintings during his lifetime, this exhibition is widely regarded as symbolic of his retroactive acceptance into the art establishment. Given that many are still understandably sceptical about Lowry’s work, curators TJ Clarke and Anne Wagner have presented this exhibition with the utmost seriousness. Unfortunately, this doesn’t quite wash. Never has there been a clearer example of an exhibition crumbling under the weight of its own expectation; the unnecessary comparisons made between Lowry and well-known contemporaries only reinforce sceptics’ criticisms.
Divided into six fairly generous spaces, the exhibition is curated thematically, which, at first, seems like a fair decision. However, the fundamental purpose of this is to present Lowry, not on his own terms, but as an impressionist. To this end, the first few rooms are scattered with vaguely impressionistic works made during his over-lauded stint at the Manchester School of Art in a cheap attempt to turn Lowry into an impressionist. In this it fails starkly, especially in the ill-informed decision to present lesser works of artists like Manet next to supposedly similar pieces by Lowry. It’s obvious from the outset that these are very different paintings which only confirms suspicions that, aesthetically, Lowry does not belong in this company.