I went to catch this exhibition before it finishes at the Tate Britain next week on a whim. It was a very windy, grey and drizzly afternoon, which definitely set the right scene and atmosphere in which to view Lowry’s paintings.
The exhibition did bring to light Lowry’s skills as a brilliant draughtsman. Seeing his pencil drawings, which were made with such a variety of marks and strokes, was one of the highlights and the exhibition could have done with more sketches.
Less positively, another theme I noticed was the alarming use of bright colours in many of the paintings, which I don’t think always comes out in the reproductions. Sometimes these blocks of bright colour felt gaudy and imposing, especially the red hues. Though in the second to last room of the exhibition the painting titled, The Empty House, used a slighter subtler red which somehow had more depth to it. This painting remains in my mind because it did not appear to be a typical Lowry – there was too much poetry in it, too much mystery and suggestiveness and of a story untold in comparison to his scenes of industrial life where the same stories are endlessly battered out. We know the stories and we know how Lowry will depict them – the tales of grief somehow become too safe, so in contrast The Empty House felt like a brave new beginning, though sadly was one of a kind.
However, there were other surprises in the exhibition that made me see another dimension to Lowry’s work. These include his huge industrial landscape paintings in the last room. I never knew he had done such large scale work. These really allowed him to experiment with detail. Additionally, in the landscape paintings generally, the paint was often applied more thickly and less delicately than in his other work, making it feel more immediate, passionate involved with the subject. Several of the landscapes were done in – for want of a better phrase – metaphorically ‘deeper’ colours, and with more rounded shapes, making them less wispy and flaky than his well-known work. Lowry did reveal some substance after all.
I found it interesting to learn that he painted from memory, or gives impressions of a city instead of painting ‘real’ areas and regions. The exception, as the exhibition proudly pointed out, was Piccadilly Circus. This painting certainly attracted a lot of attention from the viewers because it depicted, in large scale, Piccadilly Circus with all its traffic, advertising and crowded pavements.
There was one problematically entitled painting called The Cripples. This was one of the only paintings that presented vivid facial expressions and in close proximity to the picture plane. The sense of anguish coming from these figures was unmistakable, yet like a lot of Lowry’s work they had been transformed into types which was uncomfortable.
I noticed that the views of the cityscape were angled from above as though the observer was looking down on his subject from a great height. This felt as though Lowry was removed from it, it a more extreme way than a flaneur. He does not invest himself in the scenes. Maybe this was his way of copying with industrialisation and modernity – he observes it but tries to keep his distance and contain it into certain frames of being.
Lowry’s style of painting lacks convincing depictions of space and bodies in space. The figures float on the canvas in a hazy no-man’s-land. Is he not after all interested in how bodies relate to urban spaces? Can he himself not relate to these bodies or truly understand their experience of the space? Or is this an obvious way to mark the alienation of modernity, the shock and subsequent dislocation from any known or identifiable place?
Despite these negatives, the exhibition is worth going to. For although it does confirm Lowry’s limited skills, and indeed emphasises the narrowness of his subject matter, there are several interesting surprises that might reveal glints of what Lowry the painter could have been if he wasn’t quite so obsessive.