Monday, 25 April 2011

Lowry's Milkman

Ian McKellen: Lowry fan
Last night's ITV special about the artist LS Lowry had some genuinely interesting things to say, not just about the man himself, but also about the gulf dividing public taste from that of curators. Lowry must rank among the most popular British painters of the 20th century yet, last year or whenever the programme was made, Tate Britain had none of his work on display.

The gallery's Head of Displays, Chris Stephens, made an interesting point when he explained that it was difficult to fit Lowry into a wider narrative. He wasn't a follower of any particular movement, nor did he belong to any school. Rather he pursued his own interests and explored his own vision of the world, using his position on the margins of the art world to good effect. He was an outsider, both in the way he chose to live and in terms of where he lived - in the provinces.

LS Lowry, Street Scene, 1935
Of course the same is true of countless artists and writers. What is perhaps unusual about Lowry is that he refused to conform in any sense. He didn't go to London to seek his fortune. He didn't affiliate himself to any group. Think of Paul Nash, his near-contemporary, who constantly approached and then distanced himself from groups and movements. Nash was an individualist, but he knew how to play the game; he not only associated himself with Surrealism and other modern movements but also talked about his own work in a wonderfully obscure way that helped cultivate his reputation as a 'serious' artist.

LS Lowry, A Lake, 1947
Lowry, meanwhile, kept on painting, enjoying idiosyncratic personal relationships and expressing himself secretly in a series of unsettling pictures of strangely-dressed ballet girls. It isn't unusual for the private life of an artist to raise eyebrows, but the pictures themselves are not his best.

Perhaps I've become too used to the heavily-populated scenes of urban life, but the paintings I woke up this morning thinking about are the empty, spacious, sometimes brooding pictures - landscapes and street scenes and coastal pictures. These may not belong to a school, but they fit within a tradition. The poetic interpretation of place, whether in words or pictures, is one of the great cultural achievements of this country.

LS Lowry, Derbyshire Landscape, 1954
So Lowry does fit into a wider narrative, but it has nothing to do with any of the Isms that art historians love to talk about. This story is long and continuing, and far from straightforward. It deals not with movements and schools but with individuals - visionaries and wanderers who look with their own unique eye on the world and into their own minds, and report what they find.

Many British artists, poets and writers, who cannot be easily squeezed into any of the available movements, have a place in this sprawling narrative: Emily Bronte and John Fowles, George Borrow and Edward Thomas, Powell and Pressburger, Eric Ravilious, LS Lowry...

This was an inspired programme, led not by an expert but by a fan, and introducing as witnesses Jeffrey Archer and Lowry's milkman. The milkman, who described an incident in which the artist asked him to throw away a milk-splattered canvas, and then lamented the effect of art ownership on the artist's housekeeper, stole the show.

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