Lowry and the Working Class

They are symbols of my mood, they are myself.

–          L. S. Lowry

Tate Britain’s recently opened Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life exhibition is a wonderful display of the works of the Lancashire-born artist. The retrospective, his first at Tate, features around 90 paintings alongside various sketches, most of which feature his distinctive ‘matchstick men.’

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L. S. Lowry, Industrial Landscape, 1955. Image via www.telegraph.co.uk.

Six rooms categorise the show, the first being an introduction to Lowry’s style of painting. Streets are filled with toiled workers coming back from the mills, misery and exhaustion screaming out from their arched postures as they make their way home. In Coming Out of School (1927) children stand innocently in small groups, the Lancashire air around them full of pollution. Even at the Daisy Nook fair, the working-class families don’t seem to be having as much fun as we’d expect. Smokestacks haunt the distant background of Lancashire Fair: Good Friday, Daisy Nook (1946), while crowds walk through the turnstiles of Going to the Match (1953) as if they were entering and exiting the mills.

But the bustling city life isn’t the only thing Lowry is interested in. Houses near the countryside feature no more than about three figures. An empty street has as its focal point a vase of flowers behind a window. The serenity is tempting to be described as beautiful, but the loneliness that accompanies it reminds us of where everyone else has gone to.

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L. S. Lowry, Flowers in a Window, 1956. Image via www.tate.org.uk.

The second room makes his influences known to us, comparing several of the artist’s early works with Impressionist paintings by the likes of Van Gogh, Seurat, Utrillo, and even his master Adolphe Valette. Seurat’s deep blacks seep into Lowry’s industrial scenes, their gloominess reacting against Valette’s more dreamy conception of the working-class seen in York Street leading to Charles Street, Manchester (1913). Pencil sketches are shown close by, still retaining the polluted atmosphere of his paintings, while a display case contains several books featuring reproductions of his paintings and those of the Impressionists. On display is also Lowry’s Picadilly Circus, London (1960) where the British working-class pass through the possible results of their work, depicted in the form of Americanised brands on giant billboards.

Everyday events are recorded in the paintings shown in the third room, from unpredictable suicides to men at work. Crowds peek at the sight of a fever van, knowing that the sick child will never return home again. Funerals are depicted in such a way that their ordinariness makes them a subject of intrigue. Poverty and gloom overcome the visitors that enter this room. While an eviction is taking place in The Removal (1928), foundations for a new building are being laid in Excavating in Manchester (1932). Accompanying this room are excerpts from various films depicting the British working-class in their everyday life, with Lowry himself appearing several times, either sketching the streets or painting a small dog on to one of his canvases.

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Image via www.organizedrage.com.

However, the artist did initially think about painting landscapes from the beginning of his career, but the area he lived in was packed with the results of the Industrial Revolution. Rivers became polluted swamps, trees were being cut down, and the air was thick with smoke from the warehouses. Room 4 presents us with ravaged landscapes left behind by industrialisation, like the devastation caused by the war, seen in Blitzed Site (1942). They are now synonymous with graveyards, such as those shown in Necropolis (1947).

Since we’re talking about working-class Britain, it would only be appropriate to mention the socio-political attitudes after the Second World War. The Labour party gained governmental power after the election of Clement Attlee for Prime Minister in 1945. Celebrations fill the streets in VE Day (1945), while protesters march on the streets in a painting nearby. Children splash happily with their families at the seaside, forgetting all the misery back in the city. However, Lowry also shows us the other side of the war. Casualties are grouped together in The Cripples (1949), their sad, disfigured expressions reminding us of the horrifying events that occurred at the time. Fortunately, there was the creation of the National Health Service, where free medical care could be received as visitors quietly wait in Ancoats Hospital Outpatients’ Hall (1952).

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L. S. Lowry, The Cripples, 1949. Image via www.kootation.com.

All in all, Lowry was known for his industrial landscapes and the final room attempts to remind us of this. On display are five of his large panoramic views of the city, accompanied by several others he painted of the Welsh mining towns. We are told that these panoramas are imagined, but that doesn’t scar their impressive nature. Houses line the foreground, while bold entrances lead up to the industrial warehouses and mills that pollute the atmosphere, causing devastation to the landscapes that precede them. These paintings are a summation of everything we’ve seen since the beginning of the exhibition: desolated landscapes, smokestacks reaching up to the sky, and crowds moving in uniform directions. Death lurks beneath these works – mourners follow a hearse in a section of Industrial Landscape (1953) – and drama strikes at the heart of ordinary life.

This exhibition truly is marvellous and it is worth visiting if you’re interested in working-class drama. We see an artist who picks up on the banality of everyday life and reinterprets it like a screenplay. His characters, though often indistinguishable from each other, say a lot in the way they move and how they are positioned against their surroundings. Based on the way he paints, some would say he couldn’t paint – after all, anyone can paint stickmen – but Lowry is able to use this style to create highly narrative scenes that can captivate and really relate to the audience. His works might not necessarily be accurate, but at least they are truthful.

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L. S. Lowry, The Canal Bridge, 1949. Image via www.bbc.co.uk; Own photograph.

Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life runs until 20th October 2013 at Tate Britain, www.tate.org.uk.

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