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The Lowry exhibition at Tate Britain has provoked a critical response which often says more about the critic than the artist. For John Barrell, writing in the London Review of Books, ‘this show has been a revelation’. He admits to having ‘not rethought my attitudes to Lowry since they were formed, casually enough, in my twenties, when he was so popular that he obviously wasn’t worth much.’
Frank Whitford on the other hand, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, is not so ready to abandon his prejudices. ‘L.S.Lowry may rival Rolf Harris as Britain’s most popular painter. But popular does not necessarily mean outstandingly gifted or even particularly good.’
‘Lowry is easy to disparage,’ he writes, ‘so let me immediately draw attention to his virtues.’ He starts by acknowledging ‘his strong sense of pattern and colour’, but by the end of the paragraph he is telling us that Lowry ‘found it difficult to master shadows so he simply left them out’.
(My explanation would be that, where Lowry was painting, there were no shadows.)
‘It looks as though Lowry found it difficult to draw characters fully in the round and therefore showed most of his people from the side or from the front.’ Lowry’s painting of Piccadilly Circus is ‘a lively scene and would have worked well as a poster for the railways.’
After the faint praise comes the disparagement. ‘His pictorial language is formulaic… a limited repertory of architectural details with blank spaces in between… uniformly bland and devoid of atmosphere… figures, especially in motion, look Chaplinesque… choreographed like members of some Busby Berkeley tribute troupe…’
If you were looking for a word to describe his attitude to Lowry, Frank Whitford offers two of his own. ‘Accusations persist,’ he writes, ‘that the Tate, by wilfully ignoring Lowry for years, was being snobbish and overbearing.’
It is not difficult, in fact it is quite amusing, to imagine the TLS critic’s reaction to the Tiggerish enthusiasm of his counterpart in the LRB. His response to the statement in the exhibition catalogue that Lowry’s work ‘demonstrates important parallels with late nineteenth and early twentieth century French impressionist and realist painting’ (a view shared by John Barrell) is one of incredulity. ‘This assertion,’ he writes, ‘is staggering.’
He is so staggered, so incredulous, that he neglects to explain why. His only comment on the specific comparison made by the curators with Pissarro, Van Gogh and Utrillo is the observation that ‘all this exercise does is to show that Lowry is even weaker than Utrillo.’
I quite like Utrillo. Silly me!
Frank Whitford is a master of the Art Critic’s Sneer. He reminds us that the title of the Lowry exhibition, Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life, refers to a statement made by Baudelaire ‘who, in the Salon of 1845, first demanded that artists address their own experience and their own times’. Sadly, the best example Baudelaire could find to illustrate his argument ‘was a jobbing illustrator for the Illustrated London News called Constantin Guys who was an “observer, philosopher, flâneur” and “the painter of the passing moment”.’
When that role is transferred from a Frenchman to an Englishman, it gets even worse. ‘It takes some effort to imagine Lowry the flâneur moving from doorstep to doorstep collecting rents.’
Oui, c’est vrai. Lowry was a rent collector. He painted in his spare time. If Baudelaire’s judgement was flawed, what chance was there for Lowry?
The art critic’s last word on the matter is reserved, not for Lowry, but for the curators (who are, by the way, ‘a couple of outside curators, who admit that they know little about their subject’) and their exaggerated claims for Lowry’s worth as an artist.
The word he chooses is ‘phoney’.
Lowry drew outdoors (‘Most of the drawings are dreadful,’ we are told) and painted at home working by overhead light (one reason, we are told, ‘why his urban scenes look uniformly bland and devoid of atmosphere’). It sounds like cave painting to me. The artist leaves the cave to look at the landscape and its inhabitants, then goes back inside to draw them on the walls. Not to show the others what it’s like outside, they know that already, but rather for the pleasure they get from looking together at what they already know but had never really thought about. Cave painter, story teller, poet, it’s all the same.
Frank Whitford doesn’t get it because he doesn’t know what it’s like outside. When he looks at Lowry’s paintings, there is nothing in them that he recognises. He lives in a different cave. The art critic’s cave. The pictures on the walls of his cave tell the story of art, a story which, in his version, does not include Lowry. Lowry’s paintings disappoint him. ‘From painting to painting the mood is similar. The weather almost never changes, nor does the mood. It never rains, not even in Manchester. Though some paintings show “Cripples” or “The Fever Van”, no emotion intrudes.’
But that’s the point. That’s what the people in Lowry’s cave saw when they went out. Their own experience and their own times. Flat, shadowless, unchanging, unemotional. It’s grim up north, Frank. You should get out more.
John Barrell didn’t get it either, but he does now. ‘Many of Lowry’s figures seem to feel nothing, as if seeming to feel nothing is the best way to survive these streets… The paintings are as consistently affectless as Kafka’s novels.’
He ends his piece by saying, ‘What I most admire and enjoy about Lowry is the interest he shows, without any apparent agenda, in what people do.’
What puzzles me is what he says next. ‘I have no idea why that should be so moving.’ What else would move us in a work of art – a painting, a story, a symphony, a ballet – if it were not what it reveals about what people do? It’s the job of the cave painter, the job that every artist does. Even if the day job is rent collecting.
Coming soon – LITERARY RAMBLES – exploring some lesser known English fiction of the 20th century – 18 September
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