These are the gleaming glitzy panels of the Lowry at Salford behind which the cultural legacy of this notorious but much loved curmudgeon has been diligently curated for more than a decade. The building is yet another vertigo-inducing assault on verticality in the interests of making a big statement with attention-grabbing forms served up with a pinch of maritime flavouring. In an irony much remarked upon, Lowry’s tableaux of industrial gloom and despondency have been incarcerated inside a gilded casket alongside a shopping mall that borrows his name to attract bargain hunters to a tedious selection of outlet stores. Despite all this we are repeatedly informed by cultural commentators that Lowry and his work have been unforgivably ignored by the metropolitan art establishment with its inbuilt antipathy to anything that reminds us of the existence of working class life. According to Jeanette Winterson, indifference towards Lowry’s work is tantamount to contempt for working class values. It’s an unsupportable claim but a vital element in a revisionist scheme to reposition Lowry’s paintings in the art historical narrative. Some highly imaginative intellectual archaeology has been deployed to locate evidence of a profound examination of the human condition lurking beneath the surface arrangements of undifferentiated stickmen. An artist formerly regarded as an elective marginal with an anti-modernist sensibility is suddenly revealed as a champion of the oppressed. These exercises in reputational rehabilitation are regular events (the art of the 1980s looks likely to be the next focal point) and while welcoming the underlying spirit of intellectual curiosity the case for Lowry’s greatness seems especially feeble and unconvincing.
There’s an idea around that Lowry possessed a unique insight into the dehumanising influence of industrial capitalism and mass-production. His tiny figures plod through their wretched and depressing environment bereft of hope or ambition. To me this seems deeply insulting to working class life which was both richer and more complicated than Lowry could ever understand. Humour was one powerful weapon in surviving the tyranny of wage-slavery. Yet humour is completely absent from Lowry’s work. By endlessly portraying the huddled masses as helpless victims, he stripped them of their individuality as characters and personalities and furthermore, denied them any hope of future redemption.
William Roberts is a far superior artist to Lowry. They shared a preference for self-imposed isolation and a common interest in everyday subject matter. Although Roberts engaged with modernism in his younger days, it was a love-hate relationship and like Lowry, Roberts discovered that modernism was something he could dispense with in later life. His figures were geometrically stylised in a mechanistic fashion ultimately derived from Cubism but they never lost their individuality. Roberts’ 1940 painting, The Munitions Factory is a prime example and can be seen in the nearby Salford Museum and Art Gallery. Unlike Lowry, Roberts was an alert observer of the vagaries of fashion and style and recorded them humorously and sympathetically in his figure compositions. From what we know his political opinions were every bit as reactionary as those of Lowry but his work reflects a lively appreciation of human diversity that can’t be found in the monochrome universe of stickmen.
Another interesting comparison is with the work of largely self-taught Cardiff artist, Charles Byrd (b. 1916), a selection of his work can be seen here in the care of Cardiff Central Library. Byrd’s paintings of industrial South Wales deal with similar subject matter to Lowry’s but he sought out a wider range of viewpoints and developed a much more adventurous approach to composition. Like Lowry, Byrd employed a limited palette without conveying the kind of terminal bleakness so typical of Lowry. Unlike Lowry, Byrd has never had a West End dealer (Lefevre) nor is his work in any national collections. In terms of quality there is little to choose between them – Lowry may have the edge in evoking a sentimental response but Byrd seems to get much closer to describing the feel and texture of the industrial landscape.
Part of the case for Lowry centres around the incontestable fact that representations of industry are few and far between in 20th. century British art, leaving Lowry as the undisputed master in the field. A handful of Lowry’s near contemporaries did tackle the industrial scene and in almost every instance their efforts are superior to Lowry’s in terms of pictorial invention and paint handling. The shortlist below can be seen on the BBC Your Paintings website for comparison.CRW Nevinson Any Wintry Afternoon in England (1930)
Loading Timber at Southampton Docks (1917)
Edward Wadsworth Top of the World (1942-43)
Stanley Spencer Shipbuilding on the Clyde Series (1940)
Stanhope Forbes Permanent Way (1924)
Sheffield, River and Smoking Chimneys (1915)
I have a suspicion that the unmistakeable alienation sensed in Lowry’s work is the key to wider acceptance in the art world. Perhaps we should be comparing him with Francis Bacon whose visions of debauchery, dissipation and despair are held in such high regard. Bacon was thrilled by the sheer ugliness of existence and Lowry was equally thrilled by the unrelieved squalor of the industrial North-west. Neither show much empathy towards their subjects and both fastidiously detach themselves as individuals from the world they portray. The singular difference is that Bacon’s paintings make no appeal to sentimentality whereas much of the popularity of Lowry’s work is due to the ease with which it can be absorbed into a sentimental vision of times past. Flat caps and mufflers, whippets and ferrets, clogs and hobnailed boots, pigeon lofts and outside toilets, workhouses and board schools – all gone and never to return but so, so memorably picturesque. Lowry could be a strong candidate for the post of court painter to Kim Jong-un - nuclear missile launch sites could easily take the place of factory chimneys and satanic mills and there’s a generous supply of dehumanized masses to observe and record.