Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Art Review: Lowry at the Tate Britain

It is fair to say that Brian Sewell does not think much of L. S. Lowry.

"Lowry was a man without wisdom or urbanity" he wrote in the Evening Standard's review about the exhibition currently on at the Tate Britain. He continues by damning him as being "too intellectually and aesthetically limited to attempt simple reporting, he was the victim of his style". Sewell is not the only one, as Telegraph reviewer admitted that he hated every single moment spent in the galleries.

I went with an open mind but fearing another Miro, exposed as wanting in an exhibition at the Tate Modern by a stupefyingly boring room full of cloned images of a red hat. Keep walking, nothing to see there.

However I rather liked the Lowrys. Yes, the style was simplistic, with a repetitive creation of depth by layers of pastel colour, faded colour, grey and finally whiteout, while the multiple vanishing points conflicted and confused. And yes the technique was at best limited, struggling (and failing) with the complexities involved in capturing faces and expressions. Technically the pupil could never compare to his master, the French impressionist Valette.

But that didn't matter, as his subject was humans in urban environments, the emergent behaviour (to use the scientific term) of crowds, not the intricacies of a spotlighted individual. The variety came from the scenes, for each was different, full of life and movement, made from interactions between those stick like figures and their aggregation on the streets of some anonymous northern town.

It reminded me of those early science fiction movies such as Things to Come or Brave New World where ant like monochrome hords scurry along wide walkways, and it is likely that to some the locations in these pictures would seem not just unnatural but alien. This association felt even more appropriate for the so-called landscapes, moors devastated by industrialisation and early harbingers of post-industrialisation, with strength of image worthy of a graphic novel. But there would be no Batman flying in to rescue these wastelands, just a handful of those black line figures.

Wildlife was noticeable by its absence. No seagulls fly above those canals nor are there pigeons eating scraps of discarded food. Forget frogs and fish, for those waters appeared dead.

Where did this vision come from? His mother made it clear she had wanted a girl, his father Lowry called a cold fish, and his job was as a rent collector would bring him close to family miseries. It is no wonder that he put up the barriers that were to give him detachment from his emotions and the rushing masses of humanity.

But despite becoming an icon of left wing politics he himself was a conservative supporter. Maybe that was part of his problem, one of the reasons that officials of both traditional or avant-guard tastes found fault in him, for he didn't fit in either left or right.

All in all a very interesting and enjoyable exhibition. My only quibble was with the text about a river scene describing where "brave souls have launched a raft": yet again the Tate seems to show a fear of water (as they did with the labels of the Strindberg exhibition) as what could be more fun than a bit of messing about on a river.

Lowry might not have been able to produce the technically competent art that Sewell and co values, but my take away thought was he showed that art is wider than such a narrow definition.


Patrick said...

Brian Sewell is not anything like as clever as he seems to think he is. His opinion is not an important one, certainly not as Important as he would like to imagine, and, like many people who earn money by criticising the work of others, he is incapable of himself producing any work of merit.

I really dislike his patronising attitude.

Art is created by people who are impelled to make it. It is bought by people who like to look at it. Sewell's opinion is irrelevant and immaterial.

JP said...

I don't usually bother reading Sewell but after I'd seen the exhibition I googled reviews and his came up.