Exhibition: Lowry treatment smacks of absurdity

Lowry's Industrial Landscape
Lowry's Industrial Landscape
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Familiar landscapes tell their own story without the need for redefinition, says Duncan Macmillan

It seemed to snow a lot in Salford, or at least that is the impression you get from Lowry’s paintings of his home town in his major retrospective at Tate Britain. The ground is always a rather grimy white. Little black figures scuttle across it and this contrast of black figures and white ground is the key to the construction of all his most familiar paintings. Nor is this vision of black, white and grey relieved by any warmth ­beyond the hard, cold pink of industrial brick, a colour that also enlivens a little his sombre, hurrying crowds.

The Guitar Player by Johannes Vermeer

The Guitar Player by Johannes Vermeer

In one picture of Manchester, the white is actually snow, but generally the white ground derives from art history rather than meteorology. It reveals that Lowry’s starting point was Peter Brueghel’s winter scenes. He frequently also uses Brueghel’s high viewpoint and panoramic composition. This was not an unusual inspiration at the time. Lowry was a late starter and in the Twenties McKintosh Patrick, for instance, also turned to Brueghel for inspiration. The comparison of Lowry with Brueghel also underlines the difference, however. Brueghel’s people fill the scene from the sheer overflow of their vitality. In contrast, the matchstick men and women in Lowry’s paintings scarcely interact as they hurry by. When he does try to individualise them as in the Cripples, a picture which pays direct homage to Brueghel’s Blind Beggars, the result is grotesque.

The effect of this is distance. We look at the world he paints. We do not join it. Nor indeed does he. Distance can lend charm and individually his pictures certainly often have that, but it is also ambiguous. Lowry spent his life working as a rent collector in Salford, in the mean streets between the smoky factories that dominate his urban landscapes and dwarf the people, but he shows little sympathy for his subject matter.

He was not a Sunday painter, however. He had an artistic training in Manchester and one of the most impressive early drawings is a view from the Royal Technical College where he studied. A tall chimney dominates a familiar Lowry landscape of monotonous houses and soaring chimneys. Reflecting his training, some of Lowry’s early work, especially his drawings, are very sophisticated. His naivety was cultivated. Ben Nicholson did the same in the early Twenties. In his own odd way, therefore, Lowry was not an outsider. He belongs in the art of his time and indeed he had some success. He exhibited regularly in Paris and also achieved recognition at home. He was taken up by the Manchester Guardian, as it then was, as offering an authentic vision of the industrial north of England. He also had major pictures bought by public collections, including the Tate.

His job should have brought him close to the people he painted and indeed he said, “I’ll always be grateful to rent collection. I’ve put many of my tenants in my pictures.” No doubt, but he didn’t share their lives, or let them touch him even as he records their dramas. The Removal shows a family evicted for unpaid rent, their furniture in the street. It’s a sight he must have known well. In The Fever Van, a crowd gathers as some poor child is taken off to the isolation hospital, very possibly never to return. Lowry watches the celebrations on VE Day from far above, but does not join in. Even the bunting is drab. Colour, like spontaneous delight, is remote from the world he describes. It is the same with A Football Match. He looks down at a vast panorama in which the crowd seems scarcely more than a swarm of insects.

One of the most intriguing bits of ­information to emerge in the show is that although he was adopted as a bit of a Labour mascot after the war, Lowry was a lifelong Conservative. This perhaps explains how he could paint throughout the dark years of the General Strike, the Depression and indeed the beginning of post-war industrial decline, but for there to be little reflection of its human dimension in his work. No doubt he needed a thick skin to be a rent collector in hard times and perhaps his painting shows it. For all their hardship, his crowds do not seethe with suppressed rebellion. Rather people plod obediently to work. They know their place and keep it.

It is perhaps because his attitude towards the people he paints is so distant that his work reaches a quite different level when he paints the townscapes and occasionally the landscape without them, or at least where they play little part. There are several striking drawings of empty streets and two remarkable paintings of dark churches towering above the houses like sinister guardians of the status quo.

In the last 20 years of his life, too, he painted a series of big, panoramic industrial landscapes that are generalised visions, not a record of a particular place, and in which the figures scarcely signify at all. This began with Industrial Landscape, River Scene that was painted in 1950 as a commission associated with the Festival of Britain. It is a wide view of houses and factories disappearing into a misty distance. In the early Sixties he painted similar series of views of the mining landscapes of Ebbw Vale. They are bleak and gritty but have real grandeur. Occasionally, too, he confronts the horror of the poisoned industrial landscape. In Gateposts, for instance, in The Lake, or in The Empty House, he portrays directly the ruin and dereliction that are the legacy of industry without discipline, but these insights are rare.

This is not a simple retrospective, however. It has a thesis: Lowry is the great, unrecognised Painter of Modern Life. You can trace his pedigree back to Manet and Baudelaire. To support the idea there are works by Seurat, Van Gogh, Pissarro, Utrillo and others. It is absurd. George Formby is even brought in alongside Baudelaire further to compound the absurdity. It is also simply untrue that no other artist paid attention to the industrial landscape. Muirhead Bone’s Glasgow: Fifty Drawings, published in 1911, is a classic account of a great industrial city, warts and all, and after the Second World War, also in Glasgow, Tom Macdonald, Bet Low and others set out ­deliberately to celebrate the urban landscape. Such myopic special pleading doesn’t help Lowry at all. It simply misrepresents him.

Also in London, at the National Gallery, Vermeer and Music: the Art of Love and Leisure is, in contrast, curated with eloquent restraint and is a pure delight. This is beyond question painting of modern life, not looked at from a distance, but as it was lived. Holland in the 17th century was the model of our modern urban living and it is still a mirror in which we can see ourselves. Then as now, it seems music was ubiquitous. We see it in lovely paintings by Peter de Hooch, Gerard ter Borch, Gabriel Metsu and many others.

Most of the paintings are from the ­National Gallery’s own unrivalled Dutch collection, but three pictures by Vermeer have been added to the gallery’s two to justify the title. There are also musical instruments as beautiful as those in the paintings. Clearly people made music all the time. It was synonymous with leisure and often the occasion for, or accompaniment to, flirtation and social love-making. It was mostly more decorous than some modern music-making, but really it seems only the means has changed. The fact that so many of the best Dutch painters took such a delight in portraying music-making reflects on their painting, too. Like music it was part of life, not a thing apart.

• Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life, Tate Britain, London, until 20 October; Vermeer and Music: the Art of Love and Leisure is at the National Gallery, London, until 8 September