LS Lowry: a unique painter of modern life

Ed Noel

Topics Culture

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.

The real shame of the exhibition is that it doesn’t do justice to Lowry’s versatility. At least putting the pieces in chronological order would have meant they were obliged to incorporate the portraits, self-portraits, the ‘Father and Two Sons’ pieces painted shortly after the death of his mother, and even the unusually erotic ‘marionette works’ which were found after his death. Such is the blinkered agenda of this exhibition that it fails to properly reflect the scope of Lowry’s talent.

Some of the gems of the exhibition are the intense pencil sketches and rural landscapes, poignantly equating the decline in industry in Lancashire to famous scenes from the World War One. These all-too-rare glimpses of Lowry’s diverse talent and interests, hint at what a well-curated exhibition could deliver.

Still, there’s no escaping the overall monotony of the pieces on show. As I overheard one elderly Mancunian lady whisper to her daughter: ‘That’s the one they had in Salford, or one like it.’ The fact is, there are really only so many paintings you can see of huddled, cowing figures walking vacantly across industrial cityscapes before you start to yawn. This isn’t to say the interactions between the characters in the pieces aren’t complex and interesting, but it does become repetitive.

As one wearily enters the sixth room, perhaps holding out hope for something different to end on, you’re met with the room title: ‘The Industrial Landscapes.’ These are, in fact, surprisingly impressive despite the preceding monotony. The five giant landscapes, painted between 1950 and 1955, are Lowry’s crowning achievements and represent a genuinely impressive spectacle.

While Lowry’s invariably overcast scenes are all markedly similar, this doesn’t mean his pieces lack atmosphere, character, or their own unique charm. It’s a shame to the point of travesty that the curators of Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life couldn’t appreciate the artist on his own terms.

Ed Noel is the schools and alumni coordinator for the Debating Matters Competition.

Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life is at Tate Britain until 20 October.

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Topics Culture


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