Trouble at t’Tate?: ‘re-appraising’ Lowry

 “Lowry remains popular, rather than important; it’s hard to imagine Tate Britain, which has 23 Lowrys in its basement, mounting a survey of his work.”

~ Critic Philip Hensher, April 2011

“What makes Lowry so popular is the same thing which stops him being the subject of serious critical attention. What attracts so many is a sort of sentimentality about him.”

~ Chris Stephens, Head of Displays, Tate Britain, 2011

How times change! And so quickly!
Tate Britain show to reappraise Lowry” (Daily Telegraph, this week).
In 2013.
It’s not difficult to suggest a reason for this sudden volte-face: like Tate Britain’s up-coming, ridiculously pitched Pre-Raphaelite show, a Lowry exhibition demands little more than a quick trip Up North to Salford Quays with two big lads, a wheel-barrow, and a van.
It’s cheap.
‘Reappraise’? What they probably mean is ‘repackage’. Tate Britain are surely showing Lowry precisely because, like Rossetti and his mates, he is popular, and will, they hope, set the cash registers ringing; will it have anything at all to do with genuine, critical ‘reappraisal’?

It’s all very well to state (Guardian) that the exhibition will examine the influence on Lowry of artists like Pissarro and Utrillo (and, one certainly hopes, of his teacher, Valette), but if it were to be a true ‘reappraisal’, the gallery would have to confront, head-on, the very basis of of Lowry’s much-vaunted popularity – this absurd notion of ‘a sort of sentimentality’.
Lowry’s words:

“To say the truth, I was not thinking very much about the people. I did not care for them in the same way a social reformer does. They are part of a private beauty that haunted me. I loved them and the houses in the same way.. “

(My emphases.)

There is nothing genial and altruistic here.
And this is why I, descendant of clog-shod generations of West Riding mill-workers, have never cared a jot  for the ‘matchstick’ paintings: I never believed them. Far from being paeans to the ‘Grim-Up-North-but-Salt-of-the-Earth’-ness that brings a nostalgic tear to the eyes of otherwise hardened northern hunks, they are detached, gimlet-eyed works (nothing wrong with that; the vast majority of art works are), and thus the very  opposite of ‘sentimental’. Any ‘warmth’ in them is supplied by you, the viewer, reacting to that browny/red-toned palette, itself a fib; if you’re as old as I am you’ll remember the mucky, murky blacks and greys of smoke, soot and more soot. And reacting also to that faux-naïf style, which for me grates horribly: it lends a simple (simple-minded?) ‘folksy’ feel, but in truth that very self-conscious stylisation has a dehumanising effect which in the end is not only, as Lowry admits, unsympathetic, but downright patronising.

So how will Tate Britain ‘sell’ these works? Just by bigging-up, as with the Picasso/British Art show, the influence of much better European artists? (So what? All art is referential.) Will they focus on the ‘northern myth’, Kinkade-style, in the hope of shifting a shed-load of tea-towels, mugs and prints to a heart-warmed, grateful public? And if they do, how will they give due weight to the ‘real’ Lowry, the actually quite interesting stuff? Stuff like this, a self-portrait from 1938:
And this:

Hidden until after his death, this series of drawings sheds a somewhat different light on the public, ‘cosy’ Lowry. If the people of his industrial scapes are rendered as less than human, his girls/women here are fetishistic dolls, trussed-up, sinister automatons (his favourite ballet was Coppelia, allegedly), fantastical puppets, easily controlled; this private Lowry reminds me of no-one so much as one Everard Cunion, familiar to those of you who read the weekly ‘womags’ as the owner of a dozen life-size sex-dolls, dolls being much less “trouble” than real women, and one of which he ‘married’:

Disturbing, whichever way you look at it; some might say bordering on the sociopathic.

Of course it’s no secret that Lowry was a, troubled, lonely man with, thanks in no small part to an overbearing mother, a not entirely healthy attitude to women; I’m just wondering if and how Tate Britain will deal with this ‘darker side’ honestly and informatively, because that’s the only way a full-scale exhibition of this, to my mind, decidedly second-rank artist could possibly be worthwhile.
If the show does turn out to be just another re-hash of ‘nice’ Lowry, simply another cash-cow that doesn’t lift the artist out of our comfort zone, then frankly the gallery will have altogether failed at anything like ‘reappraisal’.

To end on a more positive note, because I know that very many of you will love and adore Lowry and disagree with me vehemently, here’s one of his seascapes, many of which I hope will feature; these I do admire for their almost minimalist near-abstraction, and for me, truth:

I have been fond of the sea all my life, how wonderful it is, yet how terrible it is. But I often think … what if it suddenly changed its mind and didn’t turn the tide? And came straight on?”

My thoughts and fears exactly.
On this and this alone, LS Lowry and I are as one.

13 thoughts on “Trouble at t’Tate?: ‘re-appraising’ Lowry

  1. When I was but a callow youth I felt very much the same as you do about Lowry. I was converted, to an extent, by an exhibition at Manchester’s City Gallery around thirty years ago (perhaps longer). The thing for me is that it’s not the subject, it’s the painting. I do agree that influences are always there and that basing a show around the idea that he saw this or that is spurious, and that this is another cheap Tate exhibition. I shall strive to convert you, and no doubt fail. Tea Towels ahoy! Another nice post Glennie.

    • I do take your point that it’s about ‘painting’ rather than subject, and it’s a very valid one, one that, when I see Lowry again, I shall endeavour to pay more attention to. It’s not, though, how I think Tate will pitch the show. It’d make a proper change if they did: Forget the ‘northern whimsy’, look at the brushwork! Can’t see it mesen!
      Thanks for the comment, lover 🙂

  2. Interesting. I had never heard of him before.
    I agree with you when you mention finance as a possible reason why museums come up with exhibitions featuring artists that might not cost too much to show. This is becoming a real issue in the art world, as art value keeps increasing, insurance companies, keep re-evaluating art, in other words to exhibit a valuable piece of art, insurance prices skyrocket. For museums it’s becoming almost impossible to show anything without a truck load of garanties. Luckily for the Tate, this guy seems to be popular enough…

    • Yes, agreed: money is the real issue, as it is for most of us theses days. I just hope they manage to make the best of a bad job, as it were.
      Interesting also that you’d never heard of him: he’s massive[ly overrated!] in England for what I think is his worst and most parochial work. I can see exactly why he doesn’t ‘travel’.
      Thanks as ever for your comment. Much appreciated.

  3. Hey again
    I won’t be going to this exhibition. On the basis that not of Tate making easy pound or two from the show. But that I find his work, well not interesting to me. They depict a way of life that is no longer; they are nostalgic pieces. I have no doubt that Lowry will draw in the crowds of the public who would not normally visit a gallery, and thats great.
    I feel my art teachers have never really been passionate about him, and I have in turn not been passionate about his work. I don’t want to berate him as its not fair or called for really on this platform. If anything I find them naive, Yes that will get some abuse, that’s how I feel.
    I too have been to the museum in Salford and was more interested in his influences than him, and thats quite sad really. Maybe time will change my opinion.

    • His influences, as you say, are far more interesting, I think. Particularly Valette, to whom I hope they do justice in this show. Not that I’ll be breaking my neck to see it either, obviously.
      Cheers for the comment, Tim.

  4. Glennie Bee, great article. even though the Lowrys are a quick trip away by tram I’ve never been enthused enough to drag myself along to see them. Like you, I see them as a prettified, nostalgic representation of a past that never was. As for Tate showing them? Yes, easy money I guess. Though most art-lovers who are really interested in Lowry they’ll already have made their way North.

  5. An exhibition of the empty seascapes and landscapes might be worth staging. I must agree with my ‘ol Lancashire born and bred Dad who finds those works engaging, and admires them as paintings, but who pronounces himself to have little time for Lowry’s “t’other stuff”.

    • Oh, I agree – by far his best stuff for me, but it’s not what ‘Lowry’ means to folk, is it? Such a shame that the popularity of the ‘matchsticks’ overshadows it, and I can’t see TB doing much to change that ‘cos all they really want is ‘bums on seats’. Which is fair enough, I suppose, IF these easy ‘blockbuster’s, like the Pre-Raphs, can be used to fund other shows that are actually interesting and enlightening.
      I may be being a bit hard on Tate, but they do wind me up when they sell these shows as something they’re not: Pre-Raphs as ‘radicals’ was particularly galling.
      Anyway, I’m rambling again.
      Thanks so much for dropping by; it’s very much appreciated.

  6. I always find your reviews interesting. I wasn’t familiar with Lowry. I confess. But on a cursory view he reminds me of some of the primitives. I don’t suppose this is any great revelation. But I find the work that I saw quite depressing. The scenes are bleak. Certainly not sentimental. Even the people look…. wasted.
    Thanks once again.

  7. I think Lowry paintings are great. They are full of movement and they depict a time that once was… along with all the trappings of life back then. I know many people who have prints of his in their homes. All the comments above I find negative. Lowry turned down three knighthoods, the only person ever to do so.

    As for the person who had never heard of him, I find it amazing. Not many artists have been to number one in the charts for three weeks, but Lowry was at Number One thanks to Brian and Michael and if compared to the absolutely ridiculous things Damian Hurst comes up with and some of Picasso’s as well and do we want to mention Banksy ( the spray can king who doesn’t pay for his canvasses but rather illegally sprays onto brick walls and is applauded …then Lowry was a fantastic artist who leave others in his wake!

    i think the Art world has gone completely bonkers… least Lowry was a real painter who had original ideas that people really loved from the heart and in comparison weren’t swept along as people are these day’s by the IN CROWD and their ideas of good art but really only have bad taste. Long live Lowry’s art .

    Last year in the press they said Lowry was the second best artist to come out of Britain after Constable……they aren’t that wrong either…I rest my case and hope that your minds do change for the better. ..appreciate ,appreciate and applaud his style.

    Well done to the Tate for realizing one of Britain’s greatest artists has thousands and thousands of fans….

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Charles. It certainly made me smile to think that there are actually people out there who believe Lowry is a better artist than Turner, apparently. And yes, you’re right, ‘he’ was indeed Top of the Hit Parade for three whole weeks: always a sure sign of artistic merit.

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