British artist LS Lowry

This video from Britain is called Lowry at Tate Britain.

By Christine Lindey in Britain:

In from the margins – LS Lowry

Friday 05 July 2013

A secretive loner, LS Lowry (1887-1976) led a double life, working as a clerk and rent collector by day and studying art and painting by night.

The only child of lower middle-class parents, he lived in Manchester’s leafy suburbs until the family’s reduced circumstances caused them to move to working-class Salford in 1909. There he found his subject matter.

Influenced by French Impressionism Lowry painted everyday life but for him this was Britain’s industrial north and Tate Britain’s exhibition focuses on his central theme.

Wrapped in shawls, hats, scarves and overcoats people brace themselves against Lancashire winds and rain, dwarfed by the mills, foundries, churches, schools, hospitals, terraced streets, canals and slag heaps which overshadow their lives.

Or they stand and stare alongside their dogs and cats as neighbours face disasters – an accident, the fever van taking away a child, a fight, an eviction, a mining disaster. Occasionally they enjoy parks, cricket and football matches, fairs and markets.

The subjects are usually depicted frontally, so emphasising the rectilinear geometry of the unadorned facades of mills and back-to-back houses.

Compositions are further strengthened by the bold tonal contrast of dark buildings and chimneys against the pale glare of wet skies and pavements. Against these dance strategically dotted touches of vermillion, pink, prussian blue and yellow ochre, describing a hat, a cardigan or a baby in a pram. Acutely observant, Lowry expertly captured the small figures’ individuality through differences of size, clothes, posture, grouping, gesture and their covert glances at each other.

So how can so much bright white and colour so often convey uneasiness? With Lowry what you think you see is rarely what you get. His paintings convey complex, contradictory, meanings. Seemingly cute toy-town pictures show hardship, insecurity and exploitation as slum dwellers scurry beneath factories whose smoke besmirches their lungs and soots their homes.

People matter yet they are seen from afar. Although sharply observed they lack three-dimensional substance and their flat bodies do not invite a hug.

Dryish paint unmixed with linseed oil is laid on the canvas in tiny, flat dabs, giving the surface a reserved tentativeness. Tightly controlled drawing and compositions, also lacking in spontaneity and fluidity, suggest suppressed emotion, the exceptions being the more broadly brushed late- industrial landscapes devoid of figures which do convey raw feelings of awe and melancholia.

Lowry celebrated working-class resilience and stoicism but rarely touched on its resistance to oppression even though Manchester was a thriving centre of the labour movement. Exceptions include a drawing of a strike meeting, which typically occurs in the background of a busy street scene while in Protest March of 1959 a small column of people proceed between terrace houses without a banner or placard between them. Their cause remains nameless.

Nor do we see the close social interaction of working-class life – the conviviality of pub sing-songs and banter, the cycling clubs or family meals and celebrations. The rent collector stands at the door, he is not invited in. A lifelong Tory, Lowry knew his subjects well but kept emotionally and politically aloof. His paintings’ tricky, unstable edginess are born of this tension.

No naive outsider, Lowry kept up with developments in contemporary art and regularly exhibited in Manchester, Paris and London from the interwar years onwards. In 1957 a BBC documentary turned him into a well-loved artist and by the 1960s reproductions of his paintings graced the walls of umpteen British homes.

His paintings work well as reproductions because the print medium thrives on flatness, strong tonal contrast and bright colour while it suppresses the flat, non-sensuous brushwork. And there’s a lot to look at – the sly humour of the little figures might inspire the viewer to spin imaginary narratives.

Although Lowry received some favourable reviews from the 1920s onwards, he was largely viewed as an awkward outsider by the art establishment and he has never been truly integrated into British art history.

Tate Britain’s exhibition aims to change this. Curated by Anne M Wagner and the Marxist TE Clark it raises important questions about the cultural establishment’s expectations and reception of art, notably its marginalisation of industrial working-class life as a subject, despite this being the defining characteristic of the 20th century.

The works are presented in a thoughtful, thematic way and contextualised with pertinent, class-conscious references to sociopolitical developments and these ideas are developed in stimulating essays in the jargon-free book accompanying the exhibition.

Lowry should indeed be fully integrated into British art history. He was a good and brave artist who understood that his industrial locality epitomised the age.

Yet claims of his importance should not be overdone – his works lack the emotional and psychological depth in comparison with those by socially committed artists such as Van Gogh, Kathe Kollwitz or Alice Neel.

Lowry And The Painting Of Modern Life runs at Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1 until October 20. Box office: (020) 7887-8888

5 thoughts on “British artist LS Lowry

  1. There was plenty more to Lowry

    Monday 08 July 2013

    Christine Lindey (M Star, July 6-7) in her otherwise excellent review of the Lowry exhibition at Tate Britain repeats the old claim that Lowry was a lifelong Tory.

    That would have been a surprise to at least one Labour councillor in Longendale, Tameside, whose nomination papers had been signed by Lowry and were proudly displayed on his wall.

    Glyn Ford
    (former Tameside councillor 1978-86)



    • Was Lowry a Tory after all?

      Sunday 14 July 2013

      I would like to thank Glyn Ford (M Star July 9) for his information that LS Lowry had signed a Labour Party councillor’s nomination papers.

      When researching my review I relied on the information in the exhibition’s catalogue which calls him “an old Tory.”

      I would be grateful for more inforation about his relationship with the Labour Party so that I can help rectify this widely held misconception in my current study of British 20th-century socialist art.

      Christine Lindey

      London SW1


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