Controversy has marked the lead-up to this major retrospective of Lancashire-born painter L.S. Lowry (1887 - 1976). Lowry's proponents claim that he has been largely ignored due to a North-South divide and because he painted the working class. His detractors, meanwhile, say that he just wasn't that good a painter, and all his work is essentially the same. Now that the exhibition has arrived, what should we make of it?
A certain grimness pervades most of Lowry's work. People trudge to the football match with heads bowed against the wind and miserable grey skies — none of the cheer you'd expect from a sporting fixture. Even at a local fair with entertainers and happy children, the sun still refuses to break through, and the joyous moments feel fleeting.
Quotes on the wall throughout the exhibition make it clear that it wasn't the best of times up in the industrial north, and nobody captures this better than Lowry. The work progressively gets darker as we see houses destroyed by the Blitz and landscapes laid to waste by industrial plant — in some works it feels as if the soot and grime of pollution have seeped into the paintings.
The exhibition is not perfect. A diversion that compares Lowry with Impressionists feels forced. Some of his later work seems too close to caricatured drawings. But the exhibition opens and closes with a bang, with vast cityscapes and landscapes framing an excellent retrospective.
Those who've never liked Lowry's work might not be swayed, as he never strayed too far from his signature style, but if you're a fan of his work or merely interested then this is about as good a Lowry exhibition as you're ever likely to see. The summer exhibitions from the major galleries so far haven't measured up to the superb spring line-up, but this exhibition bucks the trend and gets our seal of approval.
Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life is on at Tate Britain until 20 October. Tickets are £16.50, concessions available.