Saturday 21 December 2013

Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life


Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life, at Tate Britain.

This exhibition was very powerful, particularly for someone who has not been a great fan of Lowry's work. Seeing so many of his paintings, row upon row, room after room, the impact, the force of the depiction of the North of England and what industrialisation did to the land, the towns and the people, was quite overwhelming and the power of the work just hit you.  T.J. Clarke is a sharp art critic whose work I greatly admire and his, and Anne Wagner's vision of what Lowry's work means came across in a very powerful way.

The curators made the connection between Lowry, a painter of modern life, and the work of the Impressionists who embraced the beauty and ugliness of their time. Lowry's paintings are reminiscent of Van Gogh's early paintings when he first went to France, who depicted the desolation, the grime and poverty of the banlieues' , where the working class had been banished after Haussman started restructuring Paris. They are reminiscent of Pissarro's and Utrillo's depictions of how the new social order changed the city, all following Baudelaire's call for the depiction of modernity:

'Everyone is painting better and better this year, more's the pity... No one turns their face to the wind that blows from tomorrow. And yet the heroism of modern life crowds in on us, all around. - We are stifled by our true feelings, therefore cannot recognise what they are.- Subjects and colours for a new epic are everywhere. The painter, the true painter, will be the one who can seize from the life of the present its epic dimension, and make us see and understand, in colour or contour, how great and poetic we are in our neckties and patent-leather shoes'. (Charles Baudelaire, 'The Salon of 1845').

It is ironic that a painter who supported the Tories all his life, a man who was a rent collector, would become a painter of the working class, the only painter who depicted the ecological disaster, the ruined landscape, the rivers that turned into polluted swamps, the smoke that poured out of chimneys, the 'dark Satanic mills' that stretched as far as the eye could see, the feelings of hopelessness, the sense of waste and catastrophe that was the industrial North. 'My ambition was to put the industrial scene on the map because nobody else had done it, nobody had done it seriously' said Lowry. And another time: 'I've a one-track mind , I only deal with poverty. Always with gloom'. Life in the slums that was cramped and monotonous was depicted by Lowry over and over, in the same repetitive way, mirroring the life of the thousands who worked in the mills.

'His portrait of Lancashire is more grimly like than a caricature, because it is done with the intimacy of affection. He emphasises violently everything that industrialism has done to make the aspect of Lancashire more forbidding than most other places. Many of us may comfort ourselves a little with contemplating suburban roads, parks, or gardens in public squares, or with the lights and colours of morning and sunset. Mr Lowry has refused all comfortable delusions... His Lancashire is grey, with vast rectangular mills towering over diminutive houses. If there is an open space, it is of trodden earth, as grey as the rest of the landscape' wrote Bernard Taylor in the Manchester Guardian in 1921.

George Orwell's description of the North mirrors Lowry's work: 'I remember a winter afternoon in the dreadful environs of Wigan. All round was the lunar landscape of slag heaps, and to the north, through the passes, as it were, between the mountains of slag, you could see the factory chimneys sending out their plumes of smoke. The canal path was a mixture of cinders and frozen mud, criss-crossed by the imprints of innumerable clogs, and all around, as far as the slag heaps in the distance, stretched the 'flashes' - pools of stagnant water that had seeped into the hollows caused by the subsidence of ancient pits. It was horribly cold. The 'flashes' were covered with ice the colour of raw umber, the bargemen were muffled to the eyes in sacks, the lock gates wore tears of ice. It seemed a world from which vegetation had been banished; nothing existed except smoke, shale, ice, mud, ashes and foul water'.

Lowry saw how industrial technology impacted on workers' lives: separate neighbourhoods for the social classes; an 'us and them' consciousness; a forced uniformity in working class life who, because of the condition of their housing, had to live life publicly, in the street. Lowry depicted this in his paintings: a vertical format that conveyed the claustrophobic closeness of working class life; stooped figures depicted in profile, mere outlines to evoke the sameness, the repetition of their existence. And most of all, repetition. Repetition was the means to represent the social order, the modern landscape of the mill and tenement and the experience of life and death in those surroundings.

This was the world depicted, and in order to comprehend it, to really understand what it was about, one or two paintings will not do - it was the force of the sameness of working class life reproduced by Lowry in endless repetition, over and over, that brought it home and made this exhibition such an unmissable event. I was awed.

Mill Gate ('Going to the Mill'), 1916 
A Lancashire Village, 1920 

A Manufacturing Town, 1922 
St Augustine's Church, Pendlebury, 1924 
View from the Window of the Royal Technical College, 1924 

Coming out of School, 1927 

The Market Place, 1927 

The Procession, 1927

The Removal, 1928

Outside the Mill, 1928

Coming Home from the Mill, 1928

Returning from Work, 1929

Rebuilding of Rylands, Manchester, 1929

Rebuilding of Rylands, Manchester, 1929

Coming from the Mill, 1930
Junction Street, Stony Brow, Ancoats, Manchester, 1929
Excavating in Manchester, 1932

View of a Town, 1936

The Lake, 1937

Britain at Play, 1943 

Our Town, 1941 

Industrial Town, 1944 

Lancashire Fair, Good Friday, Dairy Nook, 1946 

Industrial City, 1945-48

The Canal Bridge, 1949 

Ancoats Hospital, Outpatients Hall, 1952 

Industrial Panorama, 1953 

Early Morning, 1954 

A Protest March, 1959 

Town Centre, 1966 
Mill Scene, 1971
Works by other artists that were part of the exhibition: 

Adolphe Valette, York Street Leading to Charles Street, Manchester, 1913 

Maurice Utrillo, La Place du Tertre, 1910 

Georges Seurat, The Zone (Outside the City Walls), 1882-83 


  1. I agree, Eirene, the exhibition was like a visual sociology lecture. Lowry still remains for me an artist whose individual paintings do nothing much, but as you say, seeing the body of work together was extraordinary.

    1. Hahaha! 'Visual sociology lecture'. That's vey good, Olga. I like that.

  2. Growing up in a Lancashire mill town in the 1960's for me, Lowry's paintings aren't so much a sociology lecture but the landscape of my youth. Although many of his paintings were created before the 60's, and the clothes are more old fashioned, his depiction of the mills and mill towns is very much what I remember. All different now as most of the mills have been demolished and the few that remain have been converted to other uses.

    I didn't see the Tate exhibition, but have plenty of opportunity to view his work at the Lowry in Salford where they have an extensive collection.

    1. I used to love reading Elisabeth Gaskell's novels, Mick, as she depicted life in the mills with such realism and compassion. I used to think that her work was something precious, and marvelled at her ability to portray life in the industrial north, such a unique part of history, so vividly. There have been other writers of course, Orwell's description of Wigan being one of them, but there have been no artists to my knowledge, who have done this, and in that respect Lowry is unique. Even though I was very familiar with his work, this exhibition was something special.