Published: MANCHESTER CONFIDENTIAL, 10th June 2008
Focus on Art: "Lowry: Is the Old Bugger Any Good?"
Artist: L S Lowry
You mean you live in the North and don't know? LS Lowry, born in 1887, a tall, suited, Lancashire man turned self taught artist has long been a household name. Often thought of as naive, his sentimental sketches and paintings depicting industrial working class landscapes and people brought him ridicule but also fame. He is now considered to be one of Britain's most popular and celebrated artists.
What and Where? Coming From the Mill, The Lowry
Yes indeed. Here we have one of those industrial scenes the punters love so much. 'Coming from the Mill' depicts closing time at the factories, workers stream out of the gates on to the street and make their way home. The people are puppet like, no expression or individual characteristics bar the different colours of their clothes. Caps and red or dark green jackets throng the crowd. Their feet clad in oversized black boots. This should make the crowd seem like a mass, an organism of 'the people', yet it does not. In this painting, as with most of Lowry's, every figure seems to be alone. Lowry shows us, through his own experience of solitude, that there is emptiness in multitude.
Looking at 'Coming from the Mill' is like creating a story inside your head. Each individual can be taken, their life and activities constructed. In the right bottom corner a horse rears, throwing back the carriage driver in surprise. Two children stand side by side behind a fence, left out and observing others at play. While on the far left someone leans out of a window to talk to a mother below, a baby slung across her back. These characters turn into real people; they and the scene become symbolic of a nostalgic past that viewers remember knowing.
L S Lowry developed a very personal and stylised technique. The composition of 'Coming from the Mill' is linear and graphic, the oil paint thick and his colour palette limited. The buildings are flat, with simplistic white curtains and emotive, sombre ochre and red walls; their diluted and un-solid colour reflects the lack of money within. The buildings create a grid on the canvas and trap the wandering figures within the white roads. This painting is not one of freedom, but necessity and labour. The figures are hunched, head down and exhausted.
What and Where? Man with Red Eyes, The Lowry
Well sort of. 'Man with Red Eyes' is a shocking and disturbing image, and a far cry from the heavily populated and distant figures in 'Coming from the Mill'. A man, worn and angry, stares directly out of the canvas, his large eyes burning with a sore red. The directness and raw emotion of his look arrests you.
Though a composite image, 'Man with Red Eyes' was started as a self-portrait. It was, as Lowry explained, him 'letting off steam'. For eight years Lowry had nursed his bed-ridden mother, simultaneously holding down a full time job and painting in the early hours of the morning. This painting he made right before her death, at a time when he felt frayed and on the brink of breaking. It's not Lowry, but the expression of his internal turmoil.
Lowry depicts this anonymous man with stark and grotesque detail. Small dark hairs protrude from his ears; the skin under his eyes is a heavy and dull grey. This man personifies not only Lowry's pain and grief at the time of its composition, but also that of the downtrodden worker, driven and laden by economic necessity. His brow is deeply furrowed, the unshaven stubble twinged with steel grey.
The man, hard and stern, also appears as though completely naked. He is bare and vulnerable in his anger. The red colour of his eyes, nose and scarf form a centre to the canvas. The scarf is tight as if slightly strangling him, while the overly large black cloak envelops him, overcomes his body, curving his shoulders, repressive. When asked about this painting, Lowry replied, "It frightens me".
On Lowry differ greatly. Many find his work sentimental, the language he speaks too simplistic. Looking at both paintings the subject does not feel real, but distanced. This is probably because Lowry did not depict real places or people. They are composite images, or as Lowry described them 'dreamscapes', created and imagined as he sat, tweed suited, in an armchair before his easel. Hence his rather ambiguous titles such as 'A Lancashire Town'. This makes his work surreal, but also at times frustrating and annoyingly innocent.
Yet people identify with them and come in their hordes to see them. The Royal Academy retrospective exhibition of his works in 1976 broke all records of attendance for a twentieth century artist. His mill scenes and portraits convey a uniquely English sentiment, very much of the industrial period. The landscapes are typical, full of shared associations. The boots and caps, smoke filled skylines and thronging crowds surging from the factories feel familiar.
Maybe the men do look like sticks, the whole painting somewhat cartoonish. Maybe, the industrial subject does not seem gritty enough, the white pavements too unbelievable. Maybe as comedian Harry Hill tells us, you could replicate it age 10. But maybe that's not the point.
L S Lowry was always aware that every painting he did was an extension of himself. He was a man drawn, not to document correctly what was in front of the work, but to show what he saw through himself, his feelings. His paintings were his indulgence, so why should they not be our indulgence too? Buy a poster for your living room, hallway and bathroom, as two loudly indecisive ladies were doing in the gift shop.
Both these works can be viewed in the Lowry, The Quays. 0870 1112020 www.thelowry.com