Lowry And His Matchstick Men March Into Tate Britain

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 55 months ago
Lowry And His Matchstick Men March Into Tate Britain
L.S. Lowry The Fever Van 1935.
Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool, UK)
L.S. Lowry The Fever Van 1935. Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool, UK)
L S Lowry Piccadilly Circus, London 1960. 
Private collection © The Estate of LS Lowry
L S Lowry Piccadilly Circus, London 1960. Private collection © The Estate of LS Lowry
L S Lowry Industrial Landscape 1955. 
© The estate of L.S. Lowry Photo: Tate Photography
L S Lowry Industrial Landscape 1955. © The estate of L.S. Lowry Photo: Tate Photography

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.

Last Updated 01 July 2013

Laura Porter

£16.50 for a ticket! I'm shocked. I like a bit of controversy and this exhibition sounded good for that reason but wow, that's well over-priced. Thanks for the great review, as ever.

HHGeek

"Those who’ve never liked Lowry’s work might not be swayed"

Might not, but I'd still recommend going. Historically, I couldn't stand Lowry. I thought him twee, and as part of a generation overexposed to that bloody song, I just wrote him off.

But then I went to the Lowry museum in Salford, and was blown away by the actual paintings. They're far more emotional and luminous than I ever expected; evidently the tonal palette doesn't lend itself well to reproduction.

I'm thoroughly looking forward to attending this. If anyone's worried about ticket price, then join the Art Fund for lower price entry. I have no axe to grind on the latter's behalf, and I know that £50-odd is a reasonable annual outlay, but it pays itself back several-fold over a few exhibitions + money off in museum / gallery shops.