Why should we be surprised that Lowry had a dark side? As an artist, it's a natural part of the terrain

Next year, Tate Britain will hold its first major exhibition of Lowry after an extended metropolitan snobbery. What is to be gained by dismissing him as a sadist?

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What do we mean when we talk about an artist’s dark side? And why are we so surprised when we discover he has one? You think we’d know what to expect by now. Larkin a racist. Percy Grainger into S&M. Eric Gill a domestic pornographer. Dickens a louse to his wife. Tut, tut! And that’s before we talk about the art.

I admit to a predilection for the dark side myself, but then I’m a sentimentalist. The truth is that the best art is made out of an unresolved conflict between all the sides an artist has, and this much we can say: no great art was ever made by an artist who had only one.

The dark side of Lowry is a subject that’s been gathering momentum, if only because the case for Lowry’s being a serious painter – though a few discerning critics and collectors made it long ago – has itself been gaining credence. Next year, Tate Britain will hold its first major exhibition of Lowry after a principled neglect that has been correctly attributed to metropolitan snobbery.

Not North/South snobbery – the South loves patronising the wild, untutored genius of northern artists – but a prejudice against art that is apparently accessible, popular and doesn’t wrap itself in jargon. Where curators believe that the job of art is to épater les bourgeois, bourgeois enthusiasm pulls the rug from under them. How the hell can you show art that everybody understands, and worse, that everybody likes? Indeed, if everybody likes and understands it, how the hell can it be art?

Solitude

In fact, Lowry’s popularity can easily obscure what he was really up to as a painter, and he himself – a consummate self-deprecator – was happy to let it. Whatever the popular view about the humanity that crowds his canvases, Lowry is not, to my eye, a lover of humanity. His people scuttle off, without any discernible purpose, to left and right. If his paintings were movies, their narrative would end only when they were emptied of people altogether.

The art collector Andras Kalman, a long-time friend and supporter of Lowry, noted the “brooding solitude” in much of his work, “the seascapes with their sense of the infinite; the landscapes, eerie and desolate”. And that can be said of many of the industrial paintings, too, where the wasteland atmosphere suggests an evisceration of hope that is as much psychological as social.

It’s fitting that a selection of the work which the painter entrusted to the care and discretion of Carol Lowry (no relation) should now be on show at the Crane Kalman Gallery which the late Andras Kalman founded. The exhibition includes some whimsical sketches, which I could take or leave; for whatever one makes of Lowry’s dark side, his light side is unconvincing.

Also some seascapes and landscapes, the most exquisite being Lake Nafooey, a pencil drawing of the utmost simplicity, in which, by the lightest touch, the sense of endless natural enfolding, as though of an embrace that is at once calming and cold, a promise that promises nothing, is achieved.

But if such desolation still doesn’t add up to the disturbing “darkness” I’ve been promising, then take a look at the trussed-up mannequins or marionettes – it is hard to know what to call them – women with round vermilion mouths, and legs whose length outstrips fantasy, invariably corseted or otherwise confined, neither willing nor resisting, though what they are willing or unwilling parties to is hard to determine.

In one thickly impastoed canvas, a woman is bent backwards over a coffin-shaped bureau, her short skirt pulled up, her corset pulled down, her body twisted greedily as though to display her simultaneously from the front and the back, but while it’s a puzzle to see how such a position could be achieved without the agency of someone else, she seems, in a passage of paint that has been built up and then violently gouged out, to be ecstatically caressing her breasts.

If she’s a doll, then she’s a doll that works her own strings. In another, a female figure in a Pierrot-like costume appears to be hung as though from a peg, but this time she is not her own puppet-mistress, for a figure looms behind, his outstretched hand visible, his instrumentality unclear but sinister.

Ennobled

In several of these paintings and drawings, the women are forced painfully into fantasy outfits – part theatrical (the ballet Coppélia, which Lowry is known to have liked, is often invoked), part fetishistic – costumes that show off their bodies and restrict their movements.

One remarkably elegant drawing depicts an elongated woman, invisibly handcuffed, yet somehow made light – as though she is about to take off into flight – by all that constrains her. She wears three bows: one at her waist, one at her imprisoned throat, one in her hair. Partly they suggest innocence; but also, and maybe wittily, they present the woman as packaged and ribboned, like a gift.

So what are we looking at here? Did Lowry, as he aged, achieve a frankness not available to him as a younger painter, but not one he wanted to compromise his reputation by making public? Or does the dark side of any artist show itself as a discrete entity only when he has wearied of bringing all his forces under his command?

I see nothing to be gained, anyway, by describing these as exercises in sadism. Forget Hans Bellmer’s gleefully tortured and disfigured dolls. Lowry’s forays into the dark thickets of desire don’t flaunt their transgressiveness. They try out imaginings that have been disturbing the inner peace. That man means no violence to women who seeks to lay hold, in art, of the erotic violence he discovers in himself.

Lowry’s work is not diminished by these images. On the contrary, I would say they complicate and ennoble it. They show us at what cost he was able to keep all that was disparate in him in creative suspense.

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