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.

We need to talk about Baby: Marlene Dumas

Nothing, but nothing, scares the bejaysus out of me like ‘Evil Kids’: the Grady Twins in The Shining; Toshio in The Grudge; The Exorcist‘s Regan when she’s at that ‘awkward’ stage between ‘normal’ and head-swivelling, mushy-pea-spewing grotesqueness which, while horrible, does not inspire ‘horror’.

‘Horror’ for me resides in what Freud viewed as an aesthetic quality and termed ‘Das Unheimliche’: the ‘unhomely’, the discomfiting, the ‘not talked about’; it inspires “dread and repulsion”; its essence is the uncanny, ambiguity, the awareness of the alien within the all-too-familiar; the sense that Something is Not Quite Right. And is there anything less ‘heimlich’ (cosy, familiar), more ‘dreadful’, more disquieting than an ‘Evil Kid’? Anything more against what we believe to be ‘nature‘?

Not for me.
Which is why Marlene Dumas’ Die Baba (The Baby, 1985) has been etched on my brain since I first saw it at the Saatchi Gallery some years ago.

Oil on linen, 130cm x 110cm

One of the four pieces which make up the series First People, the painting has been described as ‘repellent’. Why? because it subverts, trashes even, every cliché we hold dear about our beloved children and our relationship with them: it’s Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin (great novel, not so great film) in one deeply unsettling image.

As always, the devil is in the detail.
First off there’s the scale – ‘man-size’ – so we’re already way beyond contemplating dandling this little treasure on our laps like a plaything; in fact, we’re not being asked to contemplate him as a ‘thing’ at all, but as a person (First People), not merely a self-indulgent version/extension of ourselves, the ‘parents’. This is a sentient, willful being who engages us directly through eyes which seem to have seen just about everything ever and not been entirely thrilled about it: the casually presumed ‘innocence’ of childhood is replaced with a confrontational ‘knowingness’, in that horribly arched eyebrow, that looks right through us, and, more disturbingly, judges us.

So used are we to being presented with images of happily gurgling, tousled-haired darling moppets, that the sight of a tight-lipped (what is that smeared on his mouth? Chocolate? Or something much, much worse?), Hitler-haired mini-man is a shock to the system. No bouncing, rosy-cheeked cherub this: the greeny/yellow-tinged palette is sickly and alienating, just plain wrong,  and, for me, it exactly conjures up what Freud was getting at.

Of course, Dumas is not out to simply scare us for scariness’ sake; she has a very serious point to make, like Shriver’s novel, about the clashing dichotomy between personal and societal expectations of parenthood and the actual, lived experience of it: the little angel can be just as often the little monster; sometimes we hate, or at least resent, our children, but it would never do to say it out loud, in public. What kind of parent would that make us?
In this brave, brilliant painting fear of the child is reflected back on us as fear of ourselves, of what we, supposedly rational, caring grown-ups, are both capable and incapable, despite what we like to believe, despite the images and conventions with which the world at large surrounds us.

Now there’s something to be scared of.

Giving a horse’s ass: Carracci vs Caravaggio

Now, if you know me at all you’ll know that I cannot go more than a week without mentioning Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, or this quote:

“There was art before him [Caravaggio] and art after him, and they were not the same.” ~ Robert Hughes.

(I am nothing if not predictable.)

We are, of course, all aware of Caravaggio’s pervasive influence on visual artists from Rubens, Rembrandt and Velasquez through to Scorsese and Mapplethorpe; only this week I was ‘treated’ to an article on a MA graduate who had taken it upon herself to ‘re-imagine’ Caravaggio. (Don’t get me started. Such a cliché.) And anyone who does loves him has, at least to some degree, bought into that most romantic of ‘art’ myths, that of The Rebel (wonderfully sent up in the Tony Hancock film of the same name: my favourite ever art movie.)

Conversion on the Way to Damascus, Caravaggio, 1600-01, 2300mm x 1750mm

Annibale Carracci, on the other hand, has long been consigned to Art History, but it should be remembered that in his time, and for decades after his death, he too was considered an innovator and a paradigm, someone to be admired and learnt from. So when the two artists were awarded the commissions for the decoration of the new Cerasi Chapel in the Santa Maria del Popolo in 1600, it was something of a showdown, a Rumble in Rome, if you will:
“In the Blue corner! Beauty, idealisation, light, academic ‘rationality’, draughtsmanship, preparation, Euclidean! Seconded by Raphael , Michelangelo, Titian !
In the Red! Dirty feet, naturalism, gloom, peasant ‘superstition’, painting ‘alla prima’, fractal! No seconds!”
(Although Tintoretto may have been ringside, cheering him on.)

Assumption of the Virgin Mary, Carracci, 1600-01, 2450mm x 1550mm

Of course, Carracci won on a technicality. The altar-piece, the ‘purse’,’ went to him, the two side panels to Caravaggio.
But it was the latter who really landed the knock-out blow: can it possibly be a coincidence that the Conversion was hung to the right of the Assumption, so that that enormous horsey backside points directly towards it?
Maybe, but I don’t – won’t – think so. I love it too much.

Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

Caravaggio: volatile, rambunctious, by all acounts a bit of a nob. Never the greatest painter, but arguably the greatest artist. You gotta love him. How can you not?


Caravaggio’s other painting in the Chapel is Crucifixion of St Peter:

Anyone with an interest in Caravaggio, or indeed art, should check out Andrew Graham-Dixon’s labour of love:

Finally, very nearly gratuitously and entirely for your entertainment, a clip from the masterpiece that is The Rebel

Not all ‘blood, guts and pussy’: more thoughts on female artists.

A couple of days ago my esteemed pal at Exiled Stardust wrote about how female artists tend to be ‘overlooked’ and ‘misconstrued’, with special reference to Georgia O’Keeffe and ‘ladybits’. Another problem with our attitude to female artists, it seems to me, is that we rarely allow their work to speak for itself.

Judith Slaying Holofernes, Naples version, Artemesia Gentileschi

What I mean is, we always have to have the ‘baggage’, the ‘story’, something we do not demand of male artists in the same way. With them, personal histories tend to be interesting and informative adjuncts to the work, tangential, if you like; with women the two are inextricably entwined. Think of Artemesia Gentileschi and you’ll think of her ‘defining’ rape at the hands of Agostino Tassi; of reductive critiques that describe her work as ‘revenge’ pieces. They may well be, but I’d rather talk first about the form, the technique, the skill: about the art object; pay her the courtesy of viewing her first as an artist, yes, an Old Master, and then as a woman.

Self-portrait, Mary Beale

All of which is probably why you’ve probably never heard of Mary Beale (1632-1699), the ‘first professional female English painter’ (Wiki), and friend of court painter Peter Lely (whom you surely will have heard of.) You see, there is no ‘story‘; Mary was the daughter of a rector, got married, had children, had a successful career as a portraitist, and died. That’s it. No ‘blood, guts and pussy’, just a woman going about her business.  And a very fine painter who is now largely forgotten.
Call me ‘radical’, but that sucks.

Exiled Stardust: