L.S.Lowry is an English painter, born in 1887, died 1976, who devoted his life to painting the England – especially Manchester – of the industrial revolution. Most people know him for his townscapes populated by matchstick figures, almost child-like in their portrayal. The Tate exhibition, “Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life”, opens on 26 June.
As a Tate member, paying a little extra for private views, I got a preview of the exhibition today. I work quite near the Tate, so I popped down there at lunchtime today for the members’ preview. It was pretty busy, but nothing, I imagine, like the scrum that will form in the opening weeks.
It’s a wonderful show, and I urge anyone with a love of art, who can make it, to get down there.
There are all the classic Lowry paintings. The backdrop of factories spewing out smoke, the dark satanic mills, the shadowy figures, the matchstick people, heads bowed, shoulders slumped, heading to work, or away. They feel quite familiar, although seeing so many brings out the variety.
There’s joy in some – maybe a Lancashire fair, or VE day in 1945. In the happier ones especially, I see the influence of good old Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the great sixteenth century painter, whose paintings, like his sons, told the real story of ordinary people in those times, with their myriad characters, going about their lives in the foreground of the paintings.
But the overriding theme is, it’s grim up north, in the words of the KLF, dance band from the 1990s. There’s a room called Ruined Landscape, in which the paintings depict scenes of industrial devastation. Without the matchstick people. They are powerful pictures, with a strong hint of impressionism in their style. I read that Lowry was more enthusiastically exhibited in Paris than in England in his early days. I can see why.
I was really struck by a painting from 1925, called Industrial Landscape, Wigan. It’s hellish, and yet rather beautiful. There are others like it. Some less hazy, but all with the dark silhouettes of the industrial chimneys haunting – and enhancing – the devastated surroundings.
Sorry, v.small but the only image that wasn’t pink that I could find!
And here’s the pink one.
The second room in the exhibition is really interesting because it juxtaposes Lowry’s paintings with those of late 19th and early 20th century artists in France and Italy who had portrayed urban scenes: Pissarro, Van Gogh, Utrillo, Valette. The latter actually painted Manchester scenes, including this one. The real version is greyer and foggier than this image.
Much as I love the classics Lowrys, it was the ones I hadn’t really seen before that excited me most. Those impressionistic industrial landscapes for a start. And then the few closer up portrayals of people. Not many: people in Lowry’s paintings are usually part of the scenery, conveying a general message, not exhibiting their individuality. There are exceptions, mostly tragic. There is a very striking painting from 1919 called Pit Tragedy in which the bereaved are gathered round. The people have a ghostly feel to them, redolent of Edvard Munch.
There are a few other works which echo the angsty Norwegian. One called A Protest March from 1959 has those elongated characters and spectral faces. Spooky, as they fan out.
Lowry rarely escapes from the Manchester and Lancashire, but when he does, it can be impressive. There are three paintings from Wales – still industrial towns, still consumed by factory smoke, but with green in the surrounding hills and fields. Green! Oh yes!
I only spent an hour at the exhibition. I will go back, no question. It’s a fascinating collection, which shows in equal measure despair and love for those industrial scenes. It aches with the pain of the working people of those industrial town, but, like, Bruegel before him, celebrates the simple, everyday detail of people’s lives.
This is a Bruegel, called ‘Hunters In The Snow”.
There’s distance, and intimacy in Lowry’s work. And through the tragedy of the industrial devastation, I think Lowry was expressing a love for place and people. seeking redemption in small things. The fair, the children playing in the corners. The dogs romping. The colour breaking out on VE Day. The green hills of Ebbw Vale.
PS. Back in 1978 there was a novelty single which made No1, called “Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs” by Brian and Michael, which, as a 19 year old lover of punk and new wave, I was almost duty-bound to hate. It was celebrating Lowry, who had died in 1976. Today, there was a young man with a mic in the gallery interviewing two grey haired men in summer suits – looking rather good, it has to be said. I overheard a question which referred to the aforementioned single and the influence it had on Lowry’s popularity. (Positive).
It was them. Brian and Michael. In real life, Michael Coleman and Kevin Parrott. (Why did Kevin change his name to Brian?). There on preview day in clearly in love with the art. Credit to them…