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

Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape