What's missing in Lowry? (Tate Modern)
There’s a wonderful little film clip half way round, of Lowry painting a dog. He does this at speed, just a few deft strokes with the tip of his brush, with absolute certainty and confidence. Says a lot that clip. Lowry’s world is not real life, it’s the stylised representation of a life that no longer exists - that of big smoky factories, chimney stacks belching black smoke, thousands flooding through the factory gates on foot, people out in the streets. Whatever the subject, school, football match, cricket match, market – there’s a mill in background and rows of houses. The mills need labour, labour needs houses and houses mean towns and cities. There’s no interiors, only life lived in the streets. Nor are there any paintings of the insides of factories and mills where the work took place. Industrial work is the deep driver behind almost all of these paintings, yet it is completely absent. There’s one picture of an excavation but this is outdoors building work, not the drudgery of the mill.
I grew up in an industrial landscape, of slag heaps, rows of red brick houses (the raws) and the tail end of factories, mines, steelworks. I remember smoke pouring out of chimneys and streets with so few cars that you could play football in them. However, one of the puzzling things about these pictures is the complete absence of cars and motorised vehicles. Like work and interiors, they are a deliberate absence. And when they are there, as the very occasional van or horse drawn cart, it’s for a reason. The Fever Van, for example, that harbinger of death, which took mainly young children away, usually to death from Tuberculosis.
His use of a limited palette, as shown in the show's poster, and an unusual preponderance of white, that rarest of colours in an industrial town, make the paintings seem ethereal. The extremely limited palette, essentially five colours, white, black, red, blue and yellow, focus you on form. It’s a stripped down world devoid of any sense of sunlight, warmth or fun. This is the harsh reality of the industrial landscape. However, it does bring the ‘landscape’ aspect of his paintings to life. As landscapes, they have beauty, as industrial, urban scenes they don’t.
You know a Lowry immediately you see one. Well, that’s what I thought but there’s a few paintings in this show that you’d struggle to identify as Lowrys. But the defining feature, apart from palette, is the figures. Largely faceless figures, dashed off the tip of the brush, often more than the scene would warrant in real life. They stand for something beyond just people, as they’re such a strong force in his paintings. For me it’s the absence of form that speaks the loudest. I don’t buy the interpretation that they are ‘delightful’ in their variety, real people beyond the stick-like representation. Unlike most painters, who rarely came from the industrial working class, he lived and worked among them, and saw what industrialisation had done, to what had been a largely poor and rural workforce. They were commoditised into crowds. Workers for machines. It is only here, outside of the factory, house and school that they are actually people, going somewhere, doing something, speaking to others, playing, watching sport but they’re show, not really as individuals but as part of a crowd. There’s no portraits, even interesting faces. And when there is, such as he Cripples, an awful painting - it’s hideous.
This is a sombre show, all about what’s lost in the human spirit when work strips people of their dignity, personality, individuality and time. Poverty is not fun, nor often beautiful – it’s raw and hard. That’s what it is and that’s how he paints it.