The industrial beauty of Lowry

Industrial beauty and human figures, that’s how I would sum up Lowry’s works currently shown at Tate Britain in London. This is the first major exhibition of landscapes by the British artist since his death in 1976. I was unfamiliar with the work of this much-loved painter in Great Britain: the British fiancé of my friend R. said that he remembered Lowry in his school books.

What struck me most is Lowry’s depiction of people. Human figures and crowds are uttermost important in his paintings (leaving the mill, coming out of school for instance) but with very little detail. They made me think of the impressionists’ interpretation of the human figure in landscapes, with simple touches of paint, sometimes only suggesting a human shape.

In Lowry’s case, humans resemble match-stick figures, particularly the legs. Similarly to impressionists, but with a different technique, he abbreviated the human figure and the crowd. Even in ‘Lancashire Fair’ where we see the figures in a bigger format, the human characters are not detailed; instead Lowry focuses on the movements of people and their interaction (eg. an argument in ‘Street Hawker’). This is despite his academic training that included life drawings of models, which he considered vital to his art.

What is also striking is that he found beauty in industrial surroundings, which is where my comparison with the impressionists ends. Lowry’s landscapes comprise buildings and cities in industrial settings. Tate Britain included a 1886 painting of Van Gogh in earthy tones in the exhibition; an astute choice I think as this juxtaposition brings home the limited palette of Lowry. His industrial landscapes are painted in hues of grey and off-whites with accents of colour on the human figures, like Van Gogh did in his 30s when he painted peasants and weavers, typical of the Barbizon school. In my view, this is a good parallel with Lowry’s colours adapted to the depiction of working class.

His ‘People going to work’ reminded me of Daumier; while his human characters made me think of the naive painter Rousseau, except for the heavy brushwork in some instances in his skies. More importantly, I noted he was accepted to the Paris Salon seven years in a row. He couldn’t be a rebel against academic art, could he? I also wondered what Lowry thought about the Labour Party appropriating his works. Was he working class? No – he received a family allowance. He sees beauty in industrialisation but does he “caution” against it? No – look at his ruined landscapes series. I couldn’t tell but as highlighted by the audio guide, he creates distance from what the scenes he depicts by using a low horizon line, yielding an above perspective of the scene. After all, an artist is not obliged to convey any political commitment – and I think it is better that way. Go see the industrial beauty of Lowry’s landscapes at Tate Britain until 20 October 2013.

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