Lowry at Tate: great artist misinterpreted

“Before you buy this dinner set for 32 people, pray, tell me why would you want to have such a crowd at home!?” © Salesman at John Lewis store

Cezanne was admired by some and hated by many all his life. Even after his death it had taken some time to finally establish him as a great artist. Today, if you say you don’t like Cezanne you admit you don’t have the patience to read at least a single piece of art history text that would open your eyes to Cezanne’s greatness. Most people who go for the safe “Cezanne is not my favourite”, admit they may not like a book just because the author used a word they didn’t know. Why not look it up in the dictionary?

Lowry is another example of the Cezanne’s paradox, with a British twist to it. Cezanne spent much of his time painting just one mountain. Lowry is best known for his urban scenes with matchstick men. A very typical sample of his work:


Lowry, just as Cezanne, is loved by some and hated by others, but it is not the French kind of intellectual dislike, it is the British version of aversion. It is rags to riches kind of dislike. Lowry is especially disliked by people who went all the way up from lower classes to someone regularly patted on the shoulder by the crème de la crème folk. Laura Knight, RA and CBE, a female artist who spent her life doing “nice paintings” of theatre, circus, pretty ladies and gypsies, was one of his greatest opponents; she voted against Lowry’s election to the RA. It was her ballerina in my previous post, under Artist A. I am writing about the great Artist B, L.S.Lowry.

Lowry is a true British genius who remains underestimated, even though he has been much celebrated, and this is a paradox in itself. The man was recognised, but his ideas have not been appreciated. I am not surprised at this happening to Damien Hirst (for he’s got no ideas worth mentioning), but Lowry?!

Today (and until October) you can see Lowry’s exhibition at Tate Britain. The exhibition was set up by two American curators who named it after a seminal work by Baudelaire, “The painter of modern life”. It is the most controversial Tate exhibition I’ve seen in years. The commentary is amazingly bland. It is loaded with enthusiastic adjectives (the curators seem to go to a nontrivial effort of restraining themselves from WOWing all the time), and truth-stretching parallels drawn between Lowry and Impressionists, but is spectacularly devoid of any meaning or sense.

It is dense with phrases like this one: “The ‘Lowry effect’ lies in the strange lack of sentiment he expresses in his paintings – a world of streets but no interiors – as if to communicate not quite knowing where in the world we belong”. Now, the effect of the strange lack of sentiment in his paintings is the single most important feature in this work. How THAT can remain mysterious to an exhibition curator?! Unless you can explain this “strangeness”, there’s no point in pretending to be “rediscovering” Lowry. What is the meaning of the last part of this phrase, “Not quite knowing where in the world we belong”? The exhibition curators, quite possibly, are unaware of their whereabouts, but I am sure that someone who’d been rent collector all his working life, loved Dante Rosetti, could appreciate Sheila Fell, stuck to conservative political views and enjoyed pretening to be a humble man, knew his place extremely well. People who don’t know their whereabouts do not reject knighthood and four other royal honours. L.S.Lowry was that person.

This exhibition belittles Lowry instead of raising him.  

So, I have to remedy this.

Go to page 2 (click on “2” at the bottom) to read why Lowry was a great artist. I promise you’d feel it for yourself, at the end. In the unlikely event that you wouldn’t, I bet it will remedy your insomnia, for there are many more words to read.  


  1. I am always inspired by the point of view through another artist eyes ;use of medium, color and composition and working methods. I want to see more of Lowry’s work so I’ll look him up. Thank you for your informative posts.

  2. This was so well said and analysed! If mediocre curating leads to articles like this – so be it. I will be in London end of September, so expect to hear from me. Thank you for another eye opening and inspiring post!

  3. Very interesting and sociological post about very interesting artist & sociolog ) Hopefully I’ll make it to visit this exhibition very soon.

  4. Gongatulations for the post! Lowry is great… As for the curators, allow me to share a writing of mine(but true story)just for the fun of it:

    […] The inauguration came and everybody who was supposed to be there, was there: the TV cameras, journalists, a president, maybe a vice president and the curator. As everybody did, I went to welcome some friends who were looking at my artwork. “Isn’t suppose to be a triptych?” one asked. “It is. I believe I informed the curator,” I answered. It could be described as a triangle: one was up high, the second was quite a ways below that and the third was in between them, but to the right. The printed catalog had a different opinion: one was up high, the second below that and the third was… missing.
    Since then I have seen the curator twice. But I’ve never asked him about the right sequence of my triptych.

    1. Three curators have been fired after it was discovered Malevich’s Black Square had been displayed the wrong side up for 5 years (c).

      Curating and understanding art seem to be two things rarely dating each other, let alone sleeping in one bed )))

  5. Thank you for this inspired critique. If only you had curated instead of two people who just didn’t ‘get’ Lowry at all. This bland and uninspiring exhibition showed no depth (contrast this to the much better and less crowded, show in Salford at the Lowry Centre) and had no interest in looking forward to Lowry’s legacy. If you want to put certain paintings alongside his (a dubious benefit when done in isolation and with a lack of understanding), then look to what comes after as well as what went before. So put in Harold Riley for urban Northern streetscenes, Theodore Major for studies in isolation and the despair of workers in declining industries (last days at Wigan, for example), John Thompson for crowd scenes that speak volumes on careful study, the list is endless. If you want to go down the route of social commentary include Helen Bradley who paints with a much lighter touch and, I would argue, has less to say, more a snapshot of a particular time and class than Lowry’s profound understanding of humanity. So disappointing that Lowry has been long overlooked on the London scene and this is the show we finally get.

    1. Dear Anne, thank you very much for taking this post so much further. You are absolutely right: a show dedicated to a great artist could do well by registering and showing how the artist influenced art and thinking with his work!

      1. Thanks. Reading posts on the Tate webpage by fellow Northerners I’m left wondering why a Northern expert wasn’t invited to curate.

        1. Indeed, someone from the North seems rather expected. If I say good olde “snobbery”, is the answer going to sound too obvious? But, to (mis) quote the movie The Snatch, “never underestimate the predictability of snobbery” )))

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