Lowry is entrenched in my consciousness. For good or bad, this is an artist surrounded by myth and legend. Having grown up in the north of Manchester, a short walk from Lowry's Daisy Nook Good Friday Fair, means the artist's work is as much a trip down memory lane for me as it is a lesson in social history.
Lowry's last significant exhibition was in 1976, the year of his death. This summer he is set to enjoy two major shows. One will be at The Lowry in Salford and the other is this, the new exhibition at Tate Britain. Both shows will attempt to reposition this much-shunned artist: Salford will look at his drawings, many of which are of women, and the Tate will reposition the artist alongside the French impressionists, famed for painting modern life. This resurgence of interest in Lowry comes at a poignant time for a nation in the depths of a recession. Criticised for his lack of talent, but loved by the labouring classes for his window into industrial grime, this summer could signal a change in opinion for this often-demonised painter of matchstick men.
Lowry saw and loved an industrial landscape and its own strange kind of beauty: he painted it endlessly. He was a rent collector and continued to be so all his life (a fact only discovered upon his death). He prided himself on being a working artist, making art in his spare time. He came from a lower-middle-class family who fell on hard times and in 1909 were forced to relocate from the leafy suburb of Victoria Park to Pendlebury in Salford: this was the point when Lowry really began to observe the slums, mills and the working life of this area.
His work and location gave him a perfect window into this world and he often attributed inspiration for his paintings to the people he met through his day job. Lowry's position as an outsider to this culture is shown in his use of perspective – he is always looking in, sometimes from above or observing the crowd from afar. He was often criticised as a one trick pony, and this exhibition doesn't do much to dispel that. The paintings are indeed monotonous in a sense, but when hung together in this fashion they evoke the daily toil and the routine of life, intersected by incidents and accidents.
And it is the small social observations in the paintings that make them particularly interesting: the flocking of the crowds, The Fever Van, An Accident (the suicide of a woman in the street). A painting entitled The Cripples is at a first look crude and perverse, but on closer inspection the work becomes a social comment on the legacy of war. The cripples are in fact men with missing limbs and disfigurements: injuries earned during the Second World War. And, the children in the background turning on each other, are mimicking the gruesome scars of their parents. The message is clear: the trauma of war lasts for generations.
The dark Lowry landscape, its satanic mills and hunched figures have become the cliché northerners desperately run from, and yet simultaneously share a nostalgia for. Historians have tried to place this sense of sentimentality: perhaps it is a loss of social cohesion? When Lowry painted his landscapes in the early 1930s the slums were already being demolished. The residents were moved to pastures new, living further apart, in better conditions, but without the same community they were used to. Did Lowry paint to eternalise this life that was disappearing? Was Lowry's dismissal by the art community part of class war? Was Lowry any good anyway?
The Lowry myth I subscribe to is different again. Growing up as an aspiring artist, and therefore crucially aware of how London controls and produces the art world, has never been easy. Try as you may, the awful truth is that artists find life outside London fairly tough. Lowry is the defiant northerner who succeeded ... in some people's eyes at least. To see an artist kicking against this norm, painting a world so utterly in opposition to what was considered beautiful and worthy of a canvas, is something to celebrate. Lowry is a lesson for us all, and this is essential viewing.