Lowry at Tate: great artist misinterpreted

For instance, in a portrait colours carry meaning because of their associations with personality traits. You wouldn’t paint red a man who is an embodiment of calmness.

Van Gogh was creating conflict, or contrapunto, in the eye, where all the colours used in the painting would come together:


Colour combinations may also carry a meaning, like in this portrait by a member of the expressionist Blue Rider group. A contrast of green and red in the face may indicate that the personality portrayed is a vessel in which conflicting desires clash against each other.

Marianne von Werefkin,  Self-portrait (1910)
Marianne von Werefkin,
Self-portrait (1910)

Or, we can look at another famous conflict of shapes:

Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), Museum of Modern Art, New York

Here, the conflict is between what we think we know about a female figure (gentle curves, etc.) and what we see (sharp angles, twisted muscles). The broken silhouettes create a conflict in out mind that leads us to a conclusion something is wrong with these women. We know they couldn’t be like this, so we assume the artist wants to tell us something about them. And, indeed, these are women of liberal persuasion in the matters of having sex for money who once frightened Picasso.

Conflict does not have to be a violent clash of colours or zigzagged lines. It can be subtle, like in “Christ in the desert” by Kramskoy:

Here, Christ is shown at the moment of tormenting doubt, when all he can see ahead is a dark and desolate desert. His feet are cut by stones, he’s dirty, and tired. But the pink dawn behind his back is the promise of a new day, a new age and all we can do is just beg him to turn his head to see it. The conflict – as I am sure you’ve already guessed – is between the pink, promising sky and virtually everything else that is in the picture. I will spend some time later on this painting – one of the greatest achievements in the history of Russian realism.

Now is just the right time to click on the next page to go back to Lowry’s conflict!


  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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