At the first major London retrospective since his death, Edwin Heathcote explores the portrayal of the cityscape and buildings in LS Lowry’s paintings
Any LS Lowry show is inevitably presented to the public as a resurrection of a figure spurned by the art world, an eccentric excluded by a snobbish metropolitan elite. In fact you could just as easily argue that he is the definitive British artist of the 20th century, more instantly recognisable to more people than Tracey Emin or Jacob Epstein, David Hockney or Damien Hirst.
So here is another exhibition presented as a long-overdue recognition. And here are the familiar paintings in room after room of monotonous, drab cityscapes, in no particular order and juxtaposed with some spuriously selected French Post-Impressionists, Van Gogh, Pissarro, Utrillo, and so on. But none of that means this isn’t a brilliant show.
Germany had the expressionists, with their vivid views of cities vibrating with angst, in which the walls crowded in and figures exuded sexual tension, seedy intent or existential despair. In these pictures, the city became a cipher for the impending collapse of civilisation, a Spenglerian funk of a culture sweating the stink of decay through its every pore. But those cities were alive at that moment. Half nightmare, half nightscape, these were cities in which the dreamlike elements were enticing, rich with the same seduction that impels viewers to watch a horror film or a road accident.
England though, had Lowry. His cities were not the dreamscapes of metropolitan intensity imagined by his German contemporaries. Instead, he became the pre‑eminent recorder of the life of the industrial city. And boy, was it grim up north.
When Karl Marx visited his friend Friedrich Engels in Manchester (where his family owned a cotton mill), he could hardly believe the conditions of the working class. It helped to spur the ideas in Das Kapital and Marx was certain that the revolution would happen here first. How could it not?
But the cities that Lowry painted are far from revolutionary. These are the devastated industrial landscapes in which the earth is raped for its resources and left scarred and polluted, bleeding toxic waste, and in which people have become machine parts in an inhuman system. The figures are hunched from days spent servicing machines, bowing down to looms and engines. They stride to and from work with the occasional relief of a street fight, fair or football match which they indulge with the same attitude of tolerance, rather than real enjoyment. There is no laughing in a Lowry.
The work of Lowry’s teacher, the wonderful late impressionist Pierre Adolphe Valette, is also displayed here. Valette managed to make Manchester look like New York or Paris - immense, lost in fog, with fuzzy figures labouring in the foreground creating the city as they worked. Mills are made to look like skyscrapers, cliffs of brick and window, the smog as romantic as a Whistler or a Monet.
There is no sense, however, of this ‘becoming’ in Lowry. Apart from the rare construction site, these are cities that have been made, have served their purpose and have been used up. They are on the way out.
Despite Valette’s tuition, much is made of Lowry’s amateurism. He was a rent collector and a Tory, a man apart in a working class culture of trades unions and Labour heartlands. He was a tool of the landlord classes and banks. This outsider status is there for all to see in his naïve figures and flat facades, but it also influences the way he portrays city streets. The rent collector is despised. He stands at front doors and receives pent-up, perhaps carefully-concealed aggression. His is the world just outside the threshold, uninvited for a cup of tea as almost everyone else would be.
His world stops at the door and the wall, the world of the street and the slag heap. And this is a world in which the public realm counted for nothing. Streets are conduits for workers, there are no squares or piazzas - just alleys and wastelands with the mills forming the looming, ubiquitous backdrop, a continual reminder of the reason these towns exist at all. This is not the city as the peak of civilisation, but as the machine for making money. Undisguised, unapologetic, brutal. Flowers in a Window (1956) is almost unbearably poignant. A vase in a window is a rare glimpse into an interior world from which he was excluded. A hint at a domesticity denied him. It is the opposite of Pieter de Hooch’s and Johannes Vermeer’s paintings, which used the same brick and timber tones, and suggested the rise of the bourgeois interior as a symbol of comfort and status. It exudes exclusion.
There is no coherence in Lowry’s townscapes. He brilliantly captured the piecemeal bittiness of English cities - chimneys and church spires and black and vertical (like the figures, but less hunched), otherwise everything else is lumpy and unfinished. The occasional church tower, blackened by soot (the 1924 ‘St Augustine’s Church, Pendlebury’, for instance) might evoke a Caspar David Friedrich monument rising out of the snow, but there is no redemption here and no sense of the sublime.
His is the perfect view of the dysfunctional English city, unplanned, mean. The memorials in the cemetery in Necropolis (1947) are barely distinguishable from the smokestacks in The Canal Bridge (1949). In Industrial Landscape: River Scene, you can barely see the river, the ground is a seamless mass of sludge and toxic slime. The ground in many of the paintings appears to be eating away at the foundations of the city as houses sink into it. The streets are not grey, but snowy white and unformed. Figures are alienated in a pale ground which could be water or snow, gravel or cobble, or the sludge of the Somme.
Occasionally its whiteness evokes those Flemish winter scenes, pictures of frost fairs and snowy lowlands, but whereas in any of those a closer examination reveals some mischief or humour, a pissing or groping drunk or a misbehaving dog, the Lowry figures are mute, walking, or rather trudging. There is no detail to relieve their suffering, no expressions, no faces. So it is surprising to see an early sketch in which cartoonish figures are portrayed in biting, scabrous detail, perhaps closer to Viz than Dix, but half funny all the same.
‘You were lucky. When I were a lad…’ you can’t help hearing in the background of these pictures, all flat caps and cobbled boots, smokestacks and back-to-backs. There is a strain of dour northernism, from Morrissey to Paul Morley, which revels in this stuff. Lowry is its prophet and its image-maker. The industry has long disappeared, along with most of the mills and the mines. Lowry painted a landscape that was already disappearing then, he painted his memories of the ’20s. These are scenes of proletarian horror, in which figures are too cowed to even rebel. Yet it is also nostalgia. Lowry, like his fellow northernists, loved it. Anything that is disappearing can look better than what replaces it through the mist of memory. This exhibition is as good a counter to nostalgia as I could imagine. I’m glad he painted it, and glad I grew up in sunny London.
Edwin Heathcote is the Financial Times’ architecture critic