Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life at Tate Britain

2013-06-25 09.57.11This is going to be a very popular exhibition; even on members’ preview day, when you can usually enjoy a new Tate exhibition in a pleasantly scattered crowd, there were throngs of people generally getting in my way and I had to wait my turn to look closely at some of the canvases.  They even had the queue control ropes up outside the show, and a gift shop replete to over flowing with flat caps, tweed scarves and all manner of printed memorabilia.  They are girding themselves for a rush.

The curating of the exhibition focusses on Lowry’s depiction of city life in Lancashire in the decades from the 1920s; they are exclusively landscapes, so in a way, I saw precisely what I expected to see.  Re-imagined cityscapes peopled with figures in hats and coats, sharp angles and outlines, chimneys puffing smoke and great factories looming over the lines of back to back houses.

We arrived not long after the doors opened, so to avoid the crush in the first couple of rooms we walked through and started looking in Room 3, before returning to the first two rooms at the end.  It turns out that this was not at all a bad way to experience the show, as Room 1 is a sort of Greatest Hits, or a little bit of a taster menu for the works that are to come, a touch of this and one of that, and Room 2 provides a look at canvases from artists who may have influenced him.  I’m not sure that he was well served by either of these.

In the groupings in the later rooms of ‘Incident and Accident’, ‘Ruined Landscape’, ‘The Social Life of Labour Britain’ and ‘Industrial Landscapes’, I did feel that we became embroiled a little in a game of spot the difference.  ‘These are all using the same grey/brown muted palate, but look this one’s got some green in it; there’s three women with red hats in this one, but look  there’s no women at all depicted in ‘The Royal Exchange’, although he still did drop in a couple of dogs.’

But after looking for a while it was possible to discern more subtle differences in approaches to the depiction of the scenes, and to see that while the roads and pavements might always be depicted as a sort of shining white, by varying his marks, it was possible to tell that one painting is of a snowy day; and to marvel at the amount of detail that he included in all of the pictures, of people overshadowed by the buildings around them, or crowded around a football game forming a perfect rectangle.  They are pictures of people in a still recognisable landscape which is perhaps why he continues to be so popular.

So did I learn anything new?  I’m not sure I had realised just how productive he was, clearly verging on the obsessive, but I still think I would have liked to see more pieces that challenged my pre-existing knowledge of him.  Having said that, and maybe because of my own current preoccupation with learning to draw, I did find the few pencil and conte drawings that are on display really interesting as they did show both an interest in draftmanship as well as a much more impressionistic impulse.

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  1. I do love how you can go to an exhibition, then put in on the page so that when it comes off the other side the reader experiences so much. Thanks!
    Your last comment made me think of the exhibition at the Ashmolean in Oxford. ‘Master Drawings’ is all pencil sketches, which I think you would find amazing. Raphael, Rubens, Turner and more.

  2. I do remember my visit at Tate´s . Hours of waiting in front of high fences,but it was worth it. Always interesting .


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