I have mixed feelings about this show. On the one hand, I like that there are depictions of working class Britain on display and I feel that it is right that these paintings are considered part of the British cultural canon. I also like that a lot of these paintings represent large gatherings of people, which are absent from a lot of what we might call the mainstream of art.
However the problem with this show and, for me, with Lowry’s paintings in the main, is that the large crowds of people are almost devoid of meaning. It’s a sort of lazy pointillism of stick figures used to populate vast areas of canvas that would otherwise be empty. So while it is great that Lowry fills some of his paintings in this way (a great example being “Going To The Match”), I don’t think it works for every painting. (To be fair, not every painting is hyper-populated with stick figures, but the majority are.) I think in some paintings the presence of large numbers of his oft-caricatured matchstick figures make important points about large crowds of people and/or the dehumanizing effects of the industrial revolution on traditional working life. However, in other paintings the large gatherings of figures feel perfunctory or gimmicky – they’re there because the other paintings have them. Sometimes excessive homage can start to feel like satire or exploitation instead.
And boy are there a lot of paintings featuring those famous matchstick men (and on a Saturday afternoon there are also a lot of matchstick people crowded into the gallery to look at them all!) - it’s quite wearying in fact. An equivalent show would be the Lichtenstein retrospective from earlier this year, which also had to present an artist with a signature style without making the works seem to repetitious or boring. When I think about the structure of both shows they are quite similar, which makes me think that the charisma of Lichtenstein’s work (or my response to it, I was really won over) may be what carried the day.
The Lowry show seems aware of the snootiness towards his work in the art world, the entirety of the second room concerns itself with comparing Lowry’s work to that of other artists engaged in the traditional artistic activity of representing modern life. There were works by Valette, Pissarro, and Utrillo hung next to equivalent Lowry paintings and for me I preferred the compared artist every time. Standing in front of Lowry’s painting of London (Piccadilly Circus I think) called to mind George Bellows’ piece set in a fictional New York square half a century before - and I realised then that I’d enjoyed Bellows’ show more.
Both the Lowry and Bellows shows lionize their subjects for having depicted modern life in some way, but Bellows makes modern life (in America, about 30 to 50 years earlier than Lowry’s England) seem much more interesting and full of potential. Even in Bellows’ most industrial paintings – like the one where you can feel the chill of the snow as great skyscrapers are set to be erected out of impossibly large pits – the mood is still one of excitement, of great works being undertaken. In the Lowry paintings, he present a more dour outlook: evictions, fever vans, cripples, vast collections of smokestacks drifting off into an implied unseen horizon. It’s obvious to me that both artists occupy different social positions and have different views on their subject matter, and it’s certainly interesting to make the comparisons.
This all said, there are some stunning paintings to see in this show. Most of them are in room 4, which is called “Ruined Landscape” and they depict the moors and slag pits of the industrial North with an unflinching grimness. Bereft of gimmicky matchstick men and endowed with a gruesome beauty, these are simply breathtaking landscapes that feature industry and its effluents eating into nature, to the point where the paintings seem like they are collapsing in on themselves.
Another source of wonderful paintings is room 6, which collates the larger paintings from throughout Lowry’s career, On a larger scale the landscape seems to matter more and the people less, and so, to these eyes at least, these paintings seemed more balanced and more hopeful about the lives of their occupants. I’m sure that this is just a point of view as you could argue that industrial landscapes painted in the fifties and sixties that are barren and sparse seem quite sinister compared to those that teemed with people in the twenties and thirties. Go and have a look and see what you think. For me, the painting of Ebbw Vale was probably my favourite of the whole show.
I am glad I went and I think that if you like Lowry’s work or are interested in the social history of the UK between 1920 and 1950, you will get a lot out of it. I’d recommend that you try to go when it is not busy but it is a very popular show, so that might not be possible! Be prepared to revisit some of the busier rooms as you might get elbowed out of the way by the audio guide crowd at some points!