Monday, 1 July 2013

Modern Life Captured by L.S. Lowry at Tate

The 'Northern Aesthetic':  Revealing the 'Unseen' & 'Unnoticed' features of the everyday

Lancashire Fair, Good Friday, Daisy Nook by Laurence Stephen Lowry
HOW important is the new Tate Britain's exhibition 'Lowry & the Painting of Modern Life,' curated by the Marxist art historian T.J. Clark and his American wife Anne Wagner?  Was Christopher Draper right to use L.S. Lowry in his aim in his essay 'Six O' the Best Northern Artists', in the current issue of Northern Voices (NV14), to try to establish the existence of a 'Northern Aesthetic' in the North of England?  How representative is Lawrence Stephen Lowry of our culture and civilisation?
The reviewers on Radio Four's 'Saturday Review', last weekend, were scornful about Lowry accusing him of being repetitive; of misanthropy; of not being 'politically correct' with his uncomfortable picture 'The Cripples'; of him not having progressed as an artist during his long life; and of creating caricature figures. Was L.S. Lowry a great artist?  A provincial or folk artist?  Or just a rent man who became a weekend painter? 

In last Saturday's Financial Times (FT), Jackie Wullschlager wrote that the exhibition 'is the most radical and exciting re-evaluation of a British artist I have ever encountered, and a thrilling display of how paint conveys ideas, time, place – building a self-contained world at once absorbing and convincing in its relation to lived experience.'

At Brantwood, on the shores of lake Coniston in our northern Lake District, we have the last residence of perhaps our most famous art critic John Ruskin, and the other week when I was there I read a quote from one of his essays in which he says something like (I can't remember the exact quote): 
'For every 100 people there are perhaps 10 who can think, and for every 10 who can think there is perhaps one who can see. For seeing is the most difficult thing'

Lowry has said that he was converted to representing the world of work and industry up North after he was returning from work one day to his home in Pendlebury in Salford, when he got off the train and caught sight of something he'd passed many times before without note: 
'One day … as I left the station I saw the Acme Spinning Company's mill. The huge black framework of rows of yellow-lit windows stabding up against the sad, damp, charged afternoon sky. The mill was turning out. I watched this scene – which I'd looked at many times without seeing – with rapture.' 

When in the 19th century, he was invited to address the great and the good at Bradford Town Hall, John Ruskin bitterly told the local burgers and business men that they wanted him to praise their off-the-peg Gothic building but that what they really wanted to create was shore-to-shore chimneys across England.  The FT art critic Jackie Wullschlager, commenting on Lowry's 'Industrial Landscape Wigan' (1925), writes: 
'It is dusky black, an impressionist tonal oil of puffing chimneys looming over a grim scene of the sort described a decade later by George Orwell in 'The Road to Wigan Pier': “A world from which vegetation had been banished, nothing existed except smoke, shale, ice, mud, ashes and foul water”.' 

The critics on Radio Four last Saturday claimed Lowry does not paint people very well, but Chris Draper quotes an explanation from Lowry in Northern Voices No.14 (NV14) on this topic:
'I wanted to paint myself into what absorbed me... Natural figures would have broken the spell of it, so I made my figures half unreal.  Some critics have said that I turned my figures into puppets, as if my aim were to hint at the hard economic necessities that drove them. To say the truth, I was not thinking very much about the people. I did not care for them in the way a social reformer does. They are part of the private beauty that haunted me. I loved them and the houses in the same way.'

He refers to the people littering his pictures such as those peopling the town centre of 'The Three Cats Alston' (1969) that illustrates the front page of NV14 as being 'half real'. There are other pictures filled with folk at the Tate exhibition such as 'The Pond' (1950), yet 'River Scene' (1935) is a bleak people-less landscape which both predates and reminds me of Max Ernst's post-war surrealist picture 'Europe After the Rain'.

The art establishment has long neglected Lowry and some have suggested that this is because of the nature of southern snobbery, but last night I spoke to one of our northern contacts at Freedom Press, and she may well do a review for Northern Voices of the Tate Britain exhibition.  We know that Lowry collected Rossetti, but who can we compare him with?  We also know that he was taught by the French impressionist Adolphe Valette, and the Tate is exhibiting a foggy view of Manchester in the current exhibition.  Some have claimed that the geographical status or so-called terroire doesn't matter to the true artist as it does for wine or cheese.  As Nietzsche says 'an artist, a man has no home' and Alfred de Musset assertion 'Great artists have no country'.  And yet, Mr. Draper writes:  'for Lawrence Stephen Lowry there was no place like home'.  Some artists need to situate themselves geographically in order to create and produce their work: Van Goth needed the sun and the South of France, while Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec had to work in Paris and situate himself among the Parisian demimonde painting provocative images of the modern and sometimes decadent life of those times and living in the heart of Montmartre, an area he rarely left over the next 20 years.  Thus Lowry lived out most of his life in what is now Greater Manchester and just as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec worked in Montmartre:  Lowry painting the ordinary scenes and everyday life of industrial Lancashire, and Toulouse-Lautrec painting the extraordinary and exotic in Montmartre.  Both capture the spirit of the two distinct and different civilisations.

The current printed issue of NORTHERN VOICES No.14, is now available for sale with an essay by Chris Draper on 'Northern Artists and the Northern Aesthetic'.  Northern Voices No.14 can be obtained as follows:
Postal subscription: £5 for the next two issues (post included). Cheques made payable to 'Northern Voices' should be sent c/o 52, Todmorden Road, Burnley, Lancashire BB10 4AH.
Tel.: 0161 793 5122.

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