Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life

Issue section: 

If you are brought up in the North like me, you tend to be force-fed Lowry as a symbol of Northern grit and working class art in contract to the fancy art of the London establishment.

His work is seen as straight talking stuff and "much loved" - no art school rubbish here. I naturally grew up loathing him.

This exhibition shows him in a wider context. In fact, nearly all I thought about him was wrong. He was not working class but brought up very upper middle class and only fell into the lower middle when he was in his 20s. He was not self taught and based his art on late French impressionism - until the 1940s he was shown more in Paris than in Britain.

His famous landscapes of Salford are not views but constructed composites. In the 1950s, John Berger championed him as a realist painter whose work was based on socialist values and as a portrayer of British industrial decline. He was, in fact, a lifelong Tory who Edwin Mullier, a close friend, says was a funny witty snob who viewed the world as a misanthrope.

For most of his life he worked as a rent collector which, I suggest, influenced his view of the world and people. His famous industrial views are of broken landscapes with crowds moving in all directions, but not Breugal-like scenes of public enjoyment. Even when he paints a demonstration such as in "The Strike Meeting" (1921), there is no sense of the collective. These crowds are just one group of individuals amongst a sea of others. He often shows the grim side of life such an eviction - though what was not grim in the 30s? There is no sentimentality, no romantic avoidance of life, but little warmth either.

There are exceptions to this. His "Excavating in Manchester" (1932) is one of the very few scenes of work and the different is noticeable: here the red posts and jagged structures of the posts of the building site make for a dynamic painting, almost Leger-like.

As well as urban scenes, Lowry also painted rural ones. These are more broken than his industrial landscapes: devoid of any people, they are despoiled wastelands akin to scenes of the trenches from the First World War with an alien beauty of their own.

His post-war work can be more of a caricature and sometimes even insulting - take, for example, his 1949 work "The Cripples". In "The Protest" (1959), people are marching together but this is a march of Grosz-like zombies, his Toryism on full view. Even in his pro-NHS painting "Ancoats Hospital Outpatients Hall" of 1956, it is hard to empathise with the patients.

But Lowry can still take you by surprise. In the 1960s he travelled to South Wales to paint scenes of the area. Similar in size and scope to his paintings of urban Salford, these are radically
different. Although they portray the similar mining valleys, here you have a great sense of depth and vertigo.

Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life is at the Tate Britain, London, until 20 October