Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life at Tate Britain

We know Lowry. The small people, busy on the canvas. The factories and tall funnel-chimneys filling the air with smoke on the white sky surrounds the ant-like people. The industrial age is his primary inspiration, but only in this recent exhibition at the Tate Britain, do we see the true starting point and witness how he progressed – in a manner that never truly deviated from his original working-class depictions from the 1920’s through to the 1960’s.

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Set within six rooms, Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life begins as we see who influenced his fascination with the working-class. Taught at the Manchester School of Art, TJ Clarke and Anne M Wagner curate the exhibition by connecting him to the Impressionists and the ‘modern life’ paintings of Manet. Seeing the initial images with Impressionist thoughts floating in your mind you realise that, akin to the busy brush strokes of Monet and van Gogh, Lowry doesn’t use busy brush strokes unless depicting a busy group of people. His brush strokes, in many instances, are the people themselves, busying the canvas. Expressive and catching the movement of the factory entrance or football stadium, the movement Impressionists sought to portray is caught by Lowry in the people who move; something often missed when it is contrasted with the firm, static buildings dominating the majority of the image. Unlike the Impressionists, Lowry shows this contrast rather than turn the entire image into a wash of vivid colours and marks.

That’s not to say the influence is any less clear in the remaining rooms of the exhibition. The second room arranges French realist images – including a van Gogh – alongside Lowry’s to show the comparative use of colour and composition.

The remaining rooms are arranged chronologically, noting his particular connection to destroyed landscapes. Landscapes destroyed by war or industrialism and the communities they left behind. We see The Cripples and The Removal (a title that should be ‘The Eviction’) highlighting the working-class communities themselves and the issues that remained following World War II. Many social-issues were improving – the National Health Service was introduced – but Lowry remains fixated on working-class poverty. The Fever Van that collects children – with parents well-aware that once child step inside, it is most likely they will not return.

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The final room displays Industrial landscapes that Lowry adapted as he painted. “Lowry understood that British Industry was grinding to halt” writes Clarke and Wagner, remaining “sceptical about the ‘end of the old working class’”. Owen Jones, in Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, repeats the New Labour idea that “we’re all middle-class now” – and how the working class have been destroyed following Thatcher’s dismantling of the unions and closure of the mines. Jones refers to ideals and political attitudes at the end of the millennium and into the 2000’s – Lowry paints these final images in the 1960’s. Maybe the era is different; maybe rickets and TB is long-gone – but poverty still exists in the UK – considerably more in the Northern communities Lowry painted. Hauntingly poignant, Lowry’s paintings become ghost-like images of a time that is no more – one can only imagine what a modern-day Lowry would paint – call centres? Westfield? Even the High Street is no more.

Exhibition runs June 22nd 2013 – October 20th 2013 at the Tate Britain, review by Simon Columb – follow him on Twitter.

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