Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Lowry: Painting the past

River Scene © The estate of L.S. Lowry
I have a vague personal connection with  artist L.S. Lowry. He lived opposite my playgroup in the mid seventies and would regularly walk past my parents as they all went about their business. And finally at his death in 1977, my dad and his partner in crime were dispatched to the artist's house to ensure that nothing went missing. He had a hugely valuable art collection so it seemed best to send two young police constables to guard the place. There is even a photo of them in the Salford Lowry museum which is a fabulous record of a moment in time, where the art world and my dad bizarrely collided.

This is why I had to go with my mum and her friend to the 'Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life' exhibition at the Tate. My modern life began in 1973 when he had been painting for many years; remembering, reliving, recording a time long past by the time I arrived in Hyde.

Everything you imagine about Lowry is there in this exhibition. I found myself feeling vaguely sorry for the picture notes writer as they scoured thesauri for 'industrial' and 'landscape'. As well as imagining curators dreaming up different themes for rooms of similar paintings; Looking at Lowry, Street Life, Social Life, and Industrial Landscape.

The comparison with French Impressionism was interesting and there was a rare industrial Van Gogh and a couple of Camile Pissarro's for reference. It was hard to see their freedom and playfulness in Lowry's earnest gloom. In fact, a couple of his early ones had a sense of the uncanny of Giorgio de Chirico about them.

This is the last time that I can include a comparison to any painter working at the same time as him. After that, and I agree with Eric Newton in the 1950s, 'he was uninfluenced by any other contemporary artist'. Newton meant that as a compliment, whereas I say it with a sense of frustration. His modernist obsession with repetition, doing the same thing over and over becomes not intriguing like Rothko et al., but merely samey.

Until you get to the room called Ruined Landscape. Suddenly a chill comes over and you are no longer in a domestic / work street-environment but a haunting, broken place where all life has been extinguished. River Scene (1935), The Lake (1937) Necropolis (1947) and Cumberland Landscape (1954) left me truly staggered and wondering why he did not develop these ideas. It felt like these places were the first to truly move him as an artist and the canvases came alive with death.

The guide suggests that these ruined landscapes were the precursors of the imagined 'great industrial landscapes' of the 1950s. I disagree, they were barely a return to form. Commissioned by the Festival of Britain these 5 pieces were reminders of Britain's industrial past which was fast fading. The economy was changing, social and technical change was underway. His time was passing, if not past. And yet it could have been so different if he had persisted with the emotionally complex, if brutal and desolate ruined landscapes.

Lowry's landscapes were profoundly moving when he was at his most genuine and 'authentic'. When he removed people and focused on the real and painted what he saw, rather than generalities in his imagination, he achieved greatness. Still, my mum loved the exhibition and I valued it because of the connection to my childhood. A very pleasant afternoon to catch up with the past and present. 

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