Lowry at Tate: great artist misinterpreted

Why was Lowry a great artist?

The first step, as usual, is to look at his painting, and list what we see. This painting’s name is Accident.

lowry_accident 1926_03942

I hope you have spent some time looking for yourself and doing your own list before you go on to read mine. It would be more interesting to compare and compete (no betting, though). 

What do we see?

  • industrial landscape, uniform terraced houses
  • most buildings are grey of several shades (much less than 50) that makes air perspective very conventional, as if the whole scene were a theatre set. The red building attracts the eye just as much as the crowd that is congregating at the right side of the picture. It is a very clever decision to paint the building reddish, and to have the spot of accident slightly to the right. Your eye will dart back and forth, so most of what you’ll focus on will be the gathering crowd, just like it would be were you present there and then.
  • the landscape is very geometric, with straight lines and rectangular forms, but you can still see a lot of detail at the very back (this is an obvious influence by Pre-Raphaelites whose attention to minor detail was a central feature of their method). The only non-geometric forms in the painting are the smoke from factory chimneys, the crowd of people, the skies, and a bit of the road in the lower left corner.
  • the crowd, which is congregating to a certain spot, obviously the spot of the accident. It is a grey crowd but here and there you can spot greenish and red cardigans and coats that provide a visual measure of crowd density. The closer are the red spots to each other, the denser is the crowd. Lowry’s use of colour is clever: he uses just the right amount of colour to prevent the dense part of the crowd to merge into a single blot.
  • it is also interesting how Lowry uses the size of his matchstick people to indicate where exactly the figures are positioned in terms of their distance to the viewer. None of the “sizes” is accidental, they are all painted with mathematical precision.
  • As we keep looking at the painting, we begin noticing minor details: for instance that some of the doors in the red building are open with people watching the scene. People standing at the open door mirror the viewer looking at the painting. They do not rush to the scene, but they are curious about what is happening. And because Lowry made sure your eye travels to those people (painting the house red and changing the colour in its windows), you unavoidably become connected to the scene from the inside. I’ve marked the elements below:

Now, the question is why he painted the accident scene in this way? To approach it, we need to know that he mostly painted indoors (very unlike Impressionists), from memory, and would gradually build up an artificial city out of the real bits and pieces that he remembered or knew well.

This is what he said himself about accidents:

“Accidents interest me… What fascinates me is the people they attract. The patterns those people form, an atmosphere of tension when something’s happened. Where there’s a quarrel there’s always a crowd.” 

Conflict is the key to understanding

Where is the conflict in this painting? Lowry’s quote above contains the clue, even though there is a lot of humble pretension in Lowry’s statements on art and himself, as an artist. He once said, “You don’t need brains to be a painter, just feelings.” This is obviously a grandstand play: feelings alone don’t make an artist pay that much attention to proportion, figure spacing, and composition that we can see in this painting. It’s the brain that does it.

The conflict is between the changing shape and pattern of the crowd “generated” by the accident and the unchangeable, geometrical, lifeless forms of the urban environment. It is a conflict of a living entity (crowd) versus the industrial place where the crowd “lives” and “works”, an artistic conflict of shapes, and a philosophical conflict of modern living and dead matter.

If you want to look at a few other typical conflicts to understand the Lowry’s conflict better, press “3” at the bottom of the page, if you want to read on about Lowry, press page “4”.

13 comments

  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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