The revelatory Lowry exhibition currently at Tate Britain suggests that the artist’s response to the extreme social conditions of northern England’s scarred industrial scene was not naive naturalism but the crafting of fictional constructs: composite landscapes built from formal geometric elements, sometimes verging on the surreal.
Lowry’s imaginative world is further considered in Unseen Lowry, consisting of 100 drawings, paintings and oil sketches found at his home after his death in 1976, and displayed for the first time. A particular focus is on his figure drawings and seascapes featuring lonely rocks or monuments in dark waters – work not explored by Tate.
Even in the industrial scenes here – “Children Walking up Steps”, “Three Standing Girls, Next to a Fence” – the formal organisation of the composition and rigidity of figures are striking; in drawings of girls/mannequins, stilted becomes repressing distortion.
“Girl in Stocks Being Whipped” is a flamboyant example, but a recurring image is a stylised female figure with exaggeratedly long legs in white tights, head trussed in large bows, neck sometimes locked in a clamp: “Standing Girl with Bow and White Tights”, “Girl in Bows in a Formal Interior”, “Girl in a Miniskirt”. The figure en pointe in “Girl in Bows with High Heels” is stretched and imprisoned in a metallic brace, hair flying behind. In “Girl Being Held Up by her Shoulders”, the bust becomes steely jutting points, shoulders confined by a bow-collar, the only features of the downcast face are pouting red lips and long black lashes – Mary Quant meets Hans Bellmer.
Yet alongside are portrait heads that could illustrate D.H. Lawrence or Jane Eyre: the leathery, resilient “Head of an Old Man with a Neck Tie”, the passive, unemployed “Seated Man in Flat Cap with Knees Raised”: it is a panorama of changing British society, filtered through Lowry’s private sensibility, that complements Tate’s show of grand public works.
Until September 29, www.thelowry.com