The Tate yesterday admitted that the major new exhibition of LS Lowry “needed to be done” after facing criticism for ignoring the artist’s work and legacy.
Penelope Curtis, director of Tate Britain, said: “Lowry has been an issue for the Tate, on and off, over the years. Many people who love his work would like to see it dealt with more seriously.”
The institution had come under fire for its failure to seriously cover Lowry since his death, and only rarely displaying any of its seven paintings in London.
A documentary screened in 2011 was particularly critical of the gallery. Sir Ian McKellen suggested there was an anti-northern and anti-working class conspiracy in the failure to show Lowry’s work.
He called it a “shame, verging on the iniquitous” that visitors to London could not see the work the painter. Another fan, Noel Gallagher asked: “Is it because he is a northerner?”
Dr Curtis said: “I believe Lowry did have to be dealt with but he had to be dealt with in the right way. What we couldn’t have done was a kneejerk response to the documentary would have been wrong.” The Tate said it would invite those who had criticised the gallery to the show’s opening night.
Dr Curtis invited art historians TJ Clark and Anne Wagner “to reappraise Lowry for a new and extended audience”. Over the past 18 months, the pair has worked to establish “what Lowry meant and how serious he really was”.
Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life will be the first major exhibition of the artist’s work in London since his death in 1976.
It hopes to re-assess Lowry’s contribution to art history and argue that he was Britain’s “pre-eminent painter of the industrial city”.
Mr Clark said: “He is an artist who is taken for granted and very much condescended to,” before adding: “It is absolutely extraordinary that the image of him as an amateur, as someone who could barely paint, just won’t die. It’s absolutely astonishing.”
The distinguished art historian added that behind the sentiment was “a deep conviction from the Metropolitan elite that someone who spends their life painting this subject matter can’t be taken seriously”.
The exhibition will bring together about 80 works by the prolific artist, with several coming from the Tate’s collection. Dr Curtis
The Lancashire-born Lowry was a rent collector and new the streets well. He would take sketches but would not work from life, preferring to paint in the studio.
It was not until his 40s that Lowry began to receive recognition for his work. He was later invited to become an official war artist and then invited to be a Royal Academician in 1962.
The guest curators aim to highlight the influence from France, learning from impressionist painter Adolphe Valette, at the Manchester School of Art.
His paintings showed the rituals of public life from going to the football to the local pond, always populated by crowds of people mingling, jostling and fighting.
The works often depict Salford and its surrounding areas including Pendlebury. The exhibition will bring together eight late, large paintings by Lowry for the first time.
Mr Clark said: “He was very well aware of the metropolitan resistance for taking the north seriously as a subject for painting.”
Dr Curtis said: “It’s not just reconciling him with London, it’s reconciling him with art history. He’s always been set apart as if he can’t be dealt with in wider history. I think that’s one of the aims of this exhibition is to think about someone who has to be dealt with.”