Hopes that retrospective will persuade art world to take the quintessential painter of northern, working-class life seriously
Tuesday 15 January 2013
But this June Tate Britain, in London, is to mount the first major retrospective devoted to Lowry since the artist's death in 1976. The show is co-curated by one of the world's pre-eminent scholars of French impressionism, TJ Clark.
According to Clark, Lowry is "an artist who is taken for granted and condescended to. The reaction from London art world friends over the last year and a half, when I have said I am working on Lowry, has been of deadpan incomprehension and disappointment."
There has, said Clark, been a "metropolitan resistance to taking the north seriously as a subject for art". He added: "It may now be possible to look beyond that condescension at a time ... when the limits of the London art world's view of art are pretty obvious." He said: "It is extraordinary to me, this image of him as an amateur, as someone who could barely paint, won't die. To me it is absolutely astonishing. And coded into this conversation by the metropolitan elite is the idea that someone who paints this subject matter can't be taken seriously."
Lowry has long been a contentious subject for the Tate, which has come under fire from figures including the actor Sir Ian McKellen for only rarely putting its seven Lowry paintings and 16 works on paper on display. In a 2011 TV documentary, McKellen said it was "a shame verging on the iniquitous that foreign visitors to London shouldn't have access to the painter English people like more than most others".
Penelope Curtis, Tate Britain's director, said the exhibition – about half of whose 80 works have never before been seen in public – will take an artist "people thought they knew and reveal that they didn't know him. At the same time Lowry needs to take his place in British art history – alongside such artists as Ben Nicholson".
Curtis acknowledged that Lowry "has been an issue for Tate: many people love his work and would like to have seen it dealt with more seriously". She was delighted when Clark and co-curator Anne Wagner had proposed an exhibition. "Whatever we did, it was important that we did it in a way that wasn't cynical but was authentic and serious," she said.
Responding to the suggestion that the work was sentimental, Clark said: "There is a difference between sentimentality and social awareness … though in the post-neoliberal era the very idea of social awareness is supposed to be wrong. I see nothing sentimental in the pictures."
Lowry was most celebrated, Clark said, in the immediate postwar era up to the end of the 1960s – "in social-democratic, postwar Britain" when, he argued, Lowry's work was more in tune with the times.
The exhibition, say its curators, will explode the myth that Lowry – who, in 1939, turned down an offer to become the Manchester Guardian's art critic – was a primitive, barely competent painter. His strong links with French realism and post-impressionism will be drawn on, and comparisons with painters such as Camille Pissarro and Georges Seurat established – "though Lowry is tougher and cruder and deliberately so," said Clark.
His teacher at the Municipal College of Art, Manchester, where he took evening classes, was the French late impressionist painter Adolphe Valette and, according to Clark, Lowry "chose to show consistently in Paris from the 1920s and 30s." He was, said Clark, "truly immersed in French impressionism".
The exhibition will also show how Lowry, a rent collector with the same firm from 1916 until his retirement in 1952, recorded the "grimness and melancholia of urban life", said Clark.
"He thought hard and worked hard to find a way of doing industrial landscapes that was honest and faced up to the fact that industrialisation was, in some senses, disastrous. But he did not wallow in its misery – which is the stock charge against Lowry. He tried for an art that struck a balance between recognising the beauties of the world and what was awful in it."
Wagner paid tribute to his handling of paint and use of colour: in his picture Excavations in Manchester (1932), which shows workmen digging out the foundations of a new building, she said "he looked into the belly of modern life... building up his painting in a way analogous to the building going on apace in the scene he was depicting."
Wagner also said that Lowry should be placed in an international context, and his work assessed alongside that of peers working in the 1930s in Germany or in the postwar Soviet Union.
"Part of Lowry is that he's not kitsch. Kitsch is doing your thinking for you, telling you how to think and feel. Lowry never tells you how to feel... to have represented the lives of the working class and not become a propagandist is an astonishing achievement."
Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life is at Tate Britain, London, from 26 June to 20 October 2013