Lowry at Tate: great artist misinterpreted

Lowry is building a very subtle conflict. His conflict is not psychological. It does not arise from a clash of personalities, or powers, or sexes; it is not a clash of colours, or something that we can associate with our own contradictory feelings. His conflict of shapes is interesting, something to gawk at, and then think of, but not to cry about. This is why it is devoid of emotion. So, “the lack of sentiment” is not “strange”, it was not meant to be in the painting.

The painting of modern life? No, the painting of a modern being.

Lowry was studying the modern crowd of people like a biologist may study butterflies, carefully pinning them to a carton board and unfolding their wings for better display, wondering at an unusual defect or detail.

Lowry would usually take a raised point of view in his paintings, as a detached (but not disconnected) observer. You need to have the butterfly in your hand to study it, but you never get very close and it is impossible to see anything if you get too far. Were he to accept the knighthood, his point of view would be a mile higher. He would be able to neither see, nor show anything. His vision would be screened by poker-faced people in black suit-white tie-crispy shirt attire.

Who stands out from this grey crowd?


Yes, the photographer. And you.

For Lowry, a crowd was an organism built of individual live cells, whose incessant activity animated its body. The body could be wounded, with healthy cells rushing to the wounded spot, the body could go to and from work, the body could relax in a park or entertain itself at a city fete. Even when Lowry travelled to London and watched the cheerful crowd of the 60s’ consumer boom, he saw the very same crowd, the very same body, on the drug called consumerism. Look at his London:


Lowry does not create individualized movement for the cells, he just gives them direction and speed. Painting their movement as conscious actions of individuals would make them real individuals, and this would destroy the body. You don’t want to have a smart cell in your body, you know, a cell with its own brain. This is why his figures are so matchstick, so similar to each other. He is interested in the personality, behaviour of the crowd, not of individuals who make it up.

Lowry was, in fact, a modern philosopher, who highlighted the major contemporary issue of urban loneliness through loss of individuality in a crowd.

It is a common place, really, to talk about the isolation of individuals within a large city. It is also banal to talk about urban population as a mass that can be split into income/cultural “stratas”, but is pretty homogeneous otherwise. It is easy to artistically highlight those issues: a lonely bench, a beggar in the street, someone sitting still while cars speed by, etc. Anyone can produce ideas of loneliness in a big city. And because 99% of the ideas would be obvious, almost pre-expected statements of a very simple and well-known concept, these ideas, being painted, may produce an initial kick (“oh, what a poor girl, she looks so lonely!”), but would not make the viewer feel much beyond trivial compassion. Lowry tells you plainly, you are a part of the crowd, but you can join me in observing it, and via observing you can stand out, understand it better, and be an individual you probably are.

Lowry could address the issue of loneliness and isolation while showing a huge and busy crowd. He was one of the very few true philosopher artists the last century produced.

Today’s media en masse offer you all the latest fashion tips that promise to help you stand out from the crowd. But they just plant you further in it. Yet, a single “Lowry” can send you wondering if you are an individual worthy of notice or just a “cell” of the crowd. The moment you put a Lowry on your wall, you elevate yourself from the crowd for you become – just like Lowry – its impassioned observer.

Tate curators talk a lot about beauty that Lowry saw in an industrial town. Lowry himself was mentioning his relationship with Salford and Manchester going all the way from hate to love. But those are two different kinds of beauty. Tate believes Lowry liked what he saw, while Lowry loved what he understood about what he saw. Gustave Le Bon, the founder of social psychology, who wrote a book on crowd psychology (one of Vladimir Lenin’s favourites) absolutely detested aggressive crowds, but loved the laws that governed their collective behaviour. A physics genius may hate nuclear bombs but see a lot of beauty in physical laws that describe chain reaction.

This is why drawing a beeline between Lowry and Impressionists is very wrong. Lowry was not interested in any impressionistic ideas of capturing the play of light, the plight or beauty of the moment. Quite the opposite, he excluded light from his paintings, leaving just the required quantity of it to build air perspective in a way a theatre set would be built. He cared zilch about capturing a fleeting impression, but he cared a lot about BUILDING his world and weaving a very material crowd into it. In this, he was very similar to Cezanne, who painted in a way other people would build their homes.

Tate’s referencing Lowry’s work to Baudelaire’s essay, titled “The painter of the modern life” is also superficial. That essay was about documenting the fleeting, transient moment in the life of urban society, necessitating the need for faster painting, sketching, capturing the modern scenes. It was also more about a new focus on the emerging bourgeois and Bohemian individuals, their emotions, lives, lifestyles, and passions. Middle-class Lowry who wanted to stay firmly within the middle class couldn’t care less about individual workers, Bohemians, or higher class representatives. Lowry was never about “capturing” a moment, but always about creating it.

If you happen to be in London, go to the exhibition to see Lowry and look inside his paintings. Observe. Think. Write me whether he resonates with you – I will absolutely love to hear your thoughts. Oh, and, of course, get yourself a print of Lowry. I mean, that’s a very intellectually posh thing to do. The Queen and a few prime ministers loved Lowry, but you can love Lowry now with a full understanding of what you love him for.


  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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