Naive? Eccentric? More an unlikely modernist

For 45 years L.S. Lowry lived either with his pitiless, hypercritical, invalid mother or, after her death, entirely alone. He admitted to loneliness, not in order to garner sympathy but as a form of self-analysis, for Lowry was highly attentive to his own way of seeing. An exhibition and a book both offer significant insights into this loneliness, and how it may best be understood.

Loneliness can mean being unrecognised, or generally misperceived, which certainly applied to Lowry in his lifetime. Eight years before he died the Crane Kalman Gallery, which championed Lowry from the late 1940s until his death in 1976, mounted an exhibition in 1968 entitled The Loneliness of L.S. Lowry, with the idea of countering the stereotype that had become attached to a man then known almost exclusively for his smoky, simplified, Northern factory views, around which pipe-cleaner people scurried like worker ants. The demythologising effort was not conclusive, and the same myths have lingered around Lowry’s reputation – that he was a naive eccentric, a talented but limited weekend painter of tea-towel art.

This summer Abbot Hall, in Kendal, put on a comprehensive Lowry exhibition under the same title as the show from 1968, seeking to dissipate those myths once and for all. In a satisfying closing of the circle, Crane Kalman has brought a boiled-down version of the show back to its London premises in Brompton Road.

To cling to the idea of Lowry as a self-taught, one-note, naive painter, like Douanier Rousseau or Alfred Wallis, is scandalously ignorant. Naives paint the way they do because they are unconscious of stylistic choices – their style chooses them – while Lowry always knew what he was doing.

In a wide-ranging new monograph, L.S. Lowry: The Art and the Artist, T.G. Rosenthal calls his technique “deceptively simple”, which is a truism, because the whole point of technique is to make something that is difficult look easy. It is more apt to call him, stylistically, a concealed sophisticate, who acquired a deep knowledge of technique through painstaking study before arriving at his own highly individual methods.

From 1905 to 1915, while working in Manchester as a clerk and then a rent collector, Lowry studied under the second-rank but revered French impressionist Adolphe Valette, who painted misty Mancunian cityscapes. Meanwhile, Lowry absorbed influences from other painters – in particular Rossetti and other Pre-Raphaelites, Daumier, Boudin and Camden Town school members.

Gradually he developed his own way with paint layering and a particular fondness for certain pigments. One of these was flake white, in which he was so interested that he kept a board painted with a layer of the paint in an airtight container for seven years, solely to study how it aged. Compositionally, also, Lowry reveals traditional skills, which he puts to his own use. His perspective, and the arrangement of his picture space, was very orderly, and often used symmetry and a vanishing point at the centre of the picture plane. Many of the Lowry landscapes in the exhibition, “untypical” because they are devoid of human figures, display his feel for classical proportion and symmetry.

The emptiness of these pictures, of course, posits that other, more physical loneliness, of being solitary in a wide landscape. The exhibition includes several of these views of desolate lakes and hills, fields and country roads, seas and estuaries; in others, the only feature is a solitary ship or a lone building, often seen from high up, or from afar, and in near-monochrome. These canvases resonate very differently from the mills and crowd scenes we already know: they speak of an austere Lowry, taking his life-long refusal to emote to minimalist extremes.

It is not only his technique and his eye that seek the illusion of simplicity. His urban subject painting does so too, and this stance is what marks him most clearly as a great modern artist whose style evolved with modernism itself. His decision in the 1920s to deal only with “ordinary” urban life is wholly in line with the modernist projects of that time, as expounded by writers such as Joyce and Eliot.

In the 1950s, like Samuel Beckett, with whom Lowry shared significant themes, he was drawn to the grotesque, and to the existential loneliness that also informs Giacometti’s work in the same period. The coolness of Lowry’s crowd scenes and the detachment of his figure painting emphasise his social isolation as an outsider: indeed, there is something symbolically determining in the alienation of his day-job as a rent collector.

All these are resonant 20th-century themes that dispel forever the idea that Lowry was nothing but a brilliant, eccentric amateur. They tell us instead that, lonely though he was, Lowry belongs in the company of the 20th-century modernists.

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