Charles Darwent on Lowry and The Painting of Modern Life at Tate Britain: The matchstick men aren’t quite where Lowry left them

L S Lowry turned the working class into a flat-capped mob, always on the move, never getting anywhere

Fancy a Lowry? It’ll cost you. In 2011, The Football Match, in Tate Britain’s new Lowry show, sold for £5.6m. This wasn’t a one-off. Last year the (misleadingly) cheery-sounding Fun Fair at Daisy Nook was knocked down at £3.4m, while Industrial Landscape went for £2.6m. Scenes of inhuman poverty – hungry mill workers, fever hospitals, smog, cripples, beggars, street-fighting drunks – come at a price.

Who buys them? The answer – duh – is rich people. Uniquely for a Tate blockbuster, two-thirds of the works in this show have been lent by private owners. Everyone loves a Lowry, except for institutions: the Tate’s is the first exhibition of his work in a major gallery since his death in 1976. Nor does Mr Stick-Man appeal only to hedge-fund managers. You do not have to be psychic to see queues in Tate Britain’s stars.

And so, another question: why does everybody love Lowry? Certainly not because they think of him as this show would like us to.

Modernism is in vogue again: thus all the recent exhibitions trying to persuade us that Chagall/George Bellows/whoever was a modern painter, really. The subtitle to this one, The Painting of Modern Life, comes from Baudelaire via T J Clark, the historian who demonstrated, in 1985, that Impressionism had been as gritty as it was pretty. Clark is  co-curator of this exhibition, and makes his point again. Lowry, taught in Manchester by a Frenchman called Adolphe Valette, did sign up to Baudelaire’s views on modernity. But he did so in the mid-1920s, 60 years after the French poet voiced them.

Lowry was never a modern painter, in other words, but a wilfully old-fashioned one. That was true in 1925, and even truer in 1971 when he painted Mill Scene, in this show’s first room. In terms of stylistic progression, it is hardly different from Outside the Mill of 1928. Nor in terms of subject, although by 1971 Manchester’s cotton industry was 40 years dead.

“I’ve a one-track mind,” Lowry said. “I only deal with poverty.” That was an understatement.

Oddly, if you ran through the Tate’s six large, Lowry-filled rooms, the resultant blur might almost look modern. His unvarying compositional recipe calls for a terrace of houses parallel to the picture plane, on a street parallel to the bottom of the canvas, with another street running off it halfway along at right-angles. Add to this Lowry’s habit of outlining things in black and you might almost think you’d seen a modernist grid. You won’t have done. Nor – although, at speed, they might look like them – do Lowry’s rickety people have anything to do with the biomorphic squiggles of Kandinsky or Miró. 

I wonder, though, if they don’t look like germs even so? Walking around this show, I was reminded of  Henry Moore’s Shelter drawings. It has always seemed to me that Moore, a Northerner like Lowry, hated the proles he found sheltering from the Blitz in London’s Underground, that he saw them less as subterranean than as subhuman. And Lowry?

In 1924, at art school, he painted St Augustine’s, Pendlebury. As befits a student of Valette, the work looks vaguely like Pissarro, its dun-white sky a distant nod to Whistler. If you want to see how old-fashioned it is, make a side trip to the Nevinsons and Gertlers in the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Crisis of Brilliance. For all that, St Augustine’s is a lovely picture, and artists don’t have to be modern if they don’t want to. Two years later, Lowry painted The Accident, and the rest, as they say, is Lowry.

And where did this new style come from? Primitivism was in the air, even in England: in 1928, Ben Nicholson would “discover” the sailor-painter Alfred Wallis. But Lowry was not so much faux-naive as faux-folk, making work that – in his own imagining, at least – looked as though it might have been made by the people it depicted. That, in itself, is disturbing.

Perhaps he thought he was giving a visual voice to the voiceless. If so, he was wrong. What Lowry did was to dehumanise the urban working class into a mob of flat-capped Morlocks, always on its way to or from but never quite arriving, frozen in a dreadful day of back-to-backs and malnutrition, choking smogs and lice.

Even when a post-war Labour government had eradicated many of these things, Lowry, a Lancashire Tory, continued to see the poor as unevolved, their by now anachronistic sufferings too useful a subject to sacrifice to mere truth-to-life. Its subtle palette apart, I find his work repellent. As to the people who buy it, well ….

To 20 October (tate.org.uk)

CRITIC'S CHOICE

Catch all four  of London’s Vermeer paintings in one room at the National Gallery’s new exhibition Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure, which considers music as a way of bringing together lovers (to 8 Sept). From sunrise on Friday to sunset on Sunday, Nikhil Chopra’s continuous Coal on Cotton at the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester, looks at the city’s cultural links with Mumbai, in Manchester International Festival (Thurs to 21 July).

NEXT WEEK Charles Darwent high tails it to Mexico at the Royal Academy

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent