L.S. Lowry and The Painting of Modern Life – The Tate Britain
Bleak, grey and morbid; these are words commonly used to describe 20th Century industrial England. And yet Lowry’s paintings of North West England’s urban landscape are strangely attractive. The Tate’s ﬁrst major exhibition of his work takes the viewer into the mind of a painter who sought to capture the industrial scene he was so affected by. The exhibition title summarises Lowry’s work perfectly. The painter who notoriously hated sentiment was not afraid to show life in Greater Manchester exactly as he saw it. His early painting of a black building with smoke pouring from the chimneys is frankly titled ‘Northern Hospital’. The viewer is therefore offered a very human insight into the artist’s world, from the hardships of the industrial 1920s and 30s to the political and cultural changes of the post-Second World War era.
The same distinctive ﬁgures inhabit his paintings through the decades, making his style instantly unique and recognisible. His matchstick-like ﬁgures dash past red brick terraced houses, oppressive factory gates and blackened churches in swarms. There is perhaps a subtle satire in his depiction of modern street life. Whether his ﬁgures are ‘Going to work’ or ‘Going to the Match’, they march in the same stoic way. The striking similarities in their postures and actions express the monotonous daily routine of the masses.
What is perhaps most touching about his work is the lack of drama with which he presents potentially heart-breaking scenes. In a collection which the Tate labels ‘Street Life: Incident and Accident’, Lowry presents scenes of eviction and fever vans collecting sick children. In these subtle depictions, the focus is not on the events themselves but the scenes surrounding them. The dramatic events are almost overshadowed by the daily life which continues in the foreground. In this way, Lowry’s paintings are painfully truthful to real life.
The Tate brings the viewer further into Lowry’s working class world with a song about the hardships of life and quotes on the walls from social critics such as George Orwell and Robert Roberts. A passage from Orwell’s ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ brings to life Lowry’s painting ‘Industrial Landscape’, both portraying slag heaps and factory chimneys. A real sense of history is created through the combination of art and literature.
Having spent the last year studying in Manchester, I found it fascinating to consider how the once industrial city has changed. Lowry’s work undoubtedly brought moments of nostalgia, with the hustle and bustle of crowds rushing past red-brick terraced houses and blackened churches. However, I cannot help but feel were Lowry alive today, his paintings of North West England’s landscape would take quite a different tone. The once working class city is now a hub of music, culture and business. The steady grey landscape has been brought to life by gentriﬁed architecture.
Lowry was not the ﬁrst or the last artist to be inspired by the industrial North. Their work serves as an ever important reminder of the history of Britain and its development in the modern world.
The exhibition runs at The Tate Britain from 26th June until 20th October 2013.