The current Lowry exhibition at Tate Britain in London is brilliant and moving. The title of the exhibition is ‘Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life’ and I had no idea just how modern his works are. They are timeless because sadly, the struggles of people that he paints are still present. I guess it is down to the individual as to how they interpret these paintings but it is hard to see them within their own time only – they go beyond. They show working class people on their way to work, events such as a football match, or children coming out of school. They don’t show intricate detail but the paradox of this is that they show it all: less is more. Lowry saw drama in the everyday – in crowds and people together.
In the picture above, people are leaning forward to show they are on a mission to work – not unlike today. What you get with Lowry is the backdrop of the poverty in the North of England at the time which you might not see so easily in the paintings that are being done today of a city in Britain but it doesn’t mean poverty of spirit is not there. Let’s face it, when you smile at someone on your journey to work these days (especially in London), how often do you not get a look in return that looks positively puzzled? – unfortunately communicating nicely is not the norm these days and we know that years ago – at the time of the two world wars – people had less, but there were fewer choices and somehow sticking together seemed easier. You were equal to the next person – these days it is all about being better.
In 1845 in ‘The Salon of 1845’, Charles Baudelaire says ‘the heroism of modern life crowds in on us…We are stifled by our true feelings, therefore cannot recognise what we they are…The painter, the true painter, will be the one who can seize from the life of the present its epic dimension, and make us see and understand, in colour or contour…’
If I didn’t know this comment came from 1845, I would have thought it was of now. Yet, Lowry’s paintings show the results of industrialisation and modernisation. It did move forward life in many ways such as creating housing for people but this revolution in particular folds in on itself in Lowry’s lifetime, in the 1970’s – it is then temporarily repaired with the boom of the 1980’s…and then this folds in on itself again in the bust of the 2000’s. We would do well to read what John Berger in ‘LS Lowry: New Society’ (1966) says:
‘These paintings are about what has been happening to the British economy since 1918, and their logic implies the collapse still to come…Here is the recurring so-called production crisis: the obsolete industrial plants: the inadequacy of unchanged transport systems and overstrained power supplies…the shift of power from industrial capital to international finance capital…’
Yes, Lowry’s paintings are gloomy – they are beautiful but the beauty shows us the problems and suffering in society. We rarely see details and Lowry was not interested in communicating sentiment but his paintings show peoples’ struggle in life whether he wanted to show this or not. His paintings are life as it is and his landscape paintings are not unlike the war paintings of Nevinson and his contemporaries – Lowry’s landscapes show stark chimneys and mills – buildings which have overtaken the people that operate them. There are all sorts of parallels you could draw with his work and the work of the Vorticists who were part of the anti-Futurist movement and believed that the technological machines of the war were the indication of what was to come.
On the theme of war, Lowry’s painting of the The Cripples reminds us that the legacy of war bites hard into society. This is a rare painting where he shows the fear in his peoples’ faces – his ‘matchstick men’ now inhabit the pain of everyman:
…and is as meaningful today as then.