The opening ceremony to the 2012 London Olympics depicted a Britain locating and departing from its industrial heritage. Revered and feared in equal measure the dominant role of industry on modern life in northern England is definitive of the region. That is indelible in Lowry but his appeal has grown far beyond the streets he trudged as a rent collector, making him, in his own life time, one of the UK’s most popular artists.
The challenge now in 2013 for the Tate Britain is not only to sate public demand for a major Lowry exhibition in the capital but to place the painter. Lowry’s was a Modern world exempt from the romantic notions of big ideas and pinned painfully to the walls of reality. Unlike the late impressionists, from which he learnt much, there is no rustic charm to his landscapes nor celebration of the individual. Lowry seems not to entertain distractions in his depictions of the mundane in the modern.
Almost without exception Lowry’s matrix is a dirty urban white. Whether in the rut of Coming From the Mill (1930) or the ordered recreation of Going to the Match (1953), the off white limbo is the great leveller on which stick men toil, bowed beneath the large, uniform buildings around which modern life orbits.
This can be seen in Lancashire Fair: Good Friday, Daisy Nook (1953) where stories emerge from the character of the shapes in the crowd. It is an animated scene showing friends embracing in a chance meeting while the gaudy tents provide relief from the rigid shapes and lines of factory skylines. The intricate crowd blurs into anonymity but it is the sadness of the near individual staring far past us and holding a blue balloon beneath a white sky that seems poignantly louder than the noise that we imagine must be emanating from such a carnival.
The second room in the exhibit displays Lowry’s influences from modernist French artists such as Pissarro, Utrillo and Valette but the contrast is clear: theirs is a quieter urban world on the provincial cobbled streets, away from the smoking pandemonium of Lowry’s Britain.
Lowry’s St. Augustine’s Church (1924) stands out in giving the menacing figure of the building a tomb like quality, weighing on the earth and the social fabric in the same way as big factories whose windows are invariably darker than their walls. Comparatively, the much later Piccadilly Circus (1960) is a fire of movement and colour, the toy like vehicles epitomising the charm of Lowry’s child-like take on the everyday wonder of the kaleidoscope of busy streets.
Bargoed 1965 The Lowry Collection, Salford © The Estate of LS Lowry
Works such as Pit Tragedy (1919) and The Fever Van (1935) depict the social tragedies and sober realities of the modern world and show Lowry’s conscientiousness in observation. A haunting catharsis comes through the figures, their solidarity shown by their huddled, stationary stances. In a world of machines, they seem impotent. Lowry makes his figures talk and to any observer it is impossible not to feel empathy for the tiny figures attempting to navigate circumstance while trapped in brick frames.
These are not lives measured out by Prufrock’s coffee spoons but existentially at the mercy of the timekeeper and the rent book. The wail of George Formby’s ‘When Father Said He’d Pay the Rent’ repetitively on loudspeaker seems a particularly sadistic move by the Tate.
The perversions inherent in the urban stretch into the natural world. Beside a passage from Road to Wigan Pier hangs The Lake (1937) which succeeds almost too well in parodying the fertility traditionally associated with water: industry has taken precedence and Constable’s millpond has oozed out, poisoned, and on the horizon a city squats, uncaring, smoking away. The water contains dark objects, in Lowry death is black and life is grey.
In contrast the final gallery spaces are fully lit with white walls rather than the previous pale shades that seem to place the viewer in what could well be a Lowry painting. A departure is represented not least in the emphasis placed on the triumphant post war social policies that did so much to transform Britain.
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VE Day 1945
© CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection
VE Day 1945 is colourful and bright, speaking of a larger event beyond the urban microcosm. At the centre two figures sit atop the roof of a house, the sky is smokeless and in their small zenith they have broken the vice of industrial conflict. Another depiction of the Daisy Nook fair and the warmth of Ancoats Hospital Outpatients’ Hall (1953), showing a young NHS, reveal intricate characters with animated faces. These people sit in life rather than mere existence.
The exhibition closes with Lowry’s most completed views. His five large industrial landscapes, painted between 1950 and 1955, contain all the pieces. They are imagined but uniformly feature a road, moving towards the centre, transporting us back into the urban landscape and the inescapable modern world.
They are mighty pieces that make up the tapestry of the imagined past for later generations; the distance a great vista of solid, smoking shapes through which steam engines move with the purpose of an industry that dominates and does so much to render the lives of the small people in the foreground.
The Lowry Collection, Salford
© The Estate of LS Lowry
On the opposite wall are a series of Lowry’s Welsh landscapes, including the standout piece of the exhibition, Bargoed (1965). Taking much from the imagined it is a dreamscape of strangely naturalised industry cradled in the valley — a new fertility. There are no trademark figures but Lowry’s brushwork flairs to depict a stunning piece of what might be a romanticised modern world.
Bargoed makes you wonder where Lowry could have gone had he moved further beyond his signature style but arguably it was always his adherence to reality in subject and simplicity of style that has been most endearing. It is a homage that has assured his popularity and one that the Tate’s exhibition recognises above trite labels.