Tuesday 25 June 2013

Painting Pictures

In the news this week have been stories about the exhibition of LS Lowry works at the Tate Gallery in London.  They are said to have been down in store for a long time and were dusted off for the occasion.  There is a debate in the art world as to how far Lowry is "art" and his standing, many feel his work should not have been relegated to the store. 

On the other hand The Tate has to keep coming up with major new exhibitions to bring the punters and the tourists in and as decade follows decade there are more and more artists to show and more to reclaim from the past.  So whose work stays on the wall and whose does not is a cause of some strife.  This is something I want to keep away from but simply to add some comments.

One is that the day job he had was a rent man.  This occupation did not make you many friends or welcome in the local pub or club.  If he was not sardonic and cynical before he began that work then he certainly would have been after not too long encountering the local population.  It is likely that he had few illusions about human nature and tended to see it how it was.

He would have developed a detailed knowledge about his patch which enabled to have ready insights into others and the day to day life of any of the towns and villages he knew.  There would not be much he missed or could not appreciate in terms of its own realities.

Also he was a man of his time, born in 1887  not long after my grandparents and whose lifetime overlapped well into my own.  More to the point this was very much the environment and the places which the lady knew all too well.  When she looks at Lowry it is her own childhood and her parents she sees and how it was.

One striking feature of his works is the colouring.  The memory of those surviving from the 1950's is that everything was dirty and blackened.  This is enhanced by the black and white films of the past and the photographs also mostly in the same form.  There were not many colour shots of the periods and the archives do not have a great deal to draw in that form.

But Lowry was born in 1887 and grew up in a period when large areas of new and replacement housing was being put up.  The replacements came as a result of the types of leasehold as well as  clearances.  It was also an age of local government reform and a great age of municipal life with very many public buildings going up as well.

Add to that the Churches and Chapels trying to out build each other in the race for congregations.  In this world at the time these were important social facilities.  There were not many alternatives if you wanted to keep out of the pubs.  Many of the clubs in the period were places not for drink or entertainment but also for educational and common interests, notably the Temperance Clubs. 

So he would know these buildings from the time they were built and in their original colouring and style.  Later two World Wars and a long period of depression meant years of skimped maintenance, little or no exterior cleaning and the acceptance that the soot and dirt would win.  So by the 1940's and into the 1950's we were left with grim black blocks of deteriorating buildings.  Lowry's work gives them back to us as they were.

Then there are the people, and the term "matchstick men".  But the net allows a good hard look at many of his works and it is not at all like that.  There is a variety of shapes and it is crucial to know that then people were indeed thinner.  On the whole they were far more active, had less food and also a lot less sugar.  Food costs were high, some grew fat  if they had more cash, but not many and nowhere near the numbers of today.

One thing that I can be certain of was on the typical diet of the time, anyone doing ten to fourteen hour shifts on their feet and having to do some and perhaps a good deal of walking were going to be a great deal slimmer, fitter and sharper that the great majority of people today.  Also much of life was outside.  Before radio or TV or the age of the Picture Palaces there was the incentive to go out if the weather was anything like fit enough.

One subtle thing that comes across in his works is the intense communal life that so many lived then both in work and the little leisure they had.  It is difficult to explain just what it was like in the many industrial towns of that era in how people interacted and lived. 

Unluckily as so much of the film and literary life of the period was London based with almost invariably the provincial working and other classes being caricaturised it is now lost save in the works of now little read authors who will never appear on any school or university reading list.  Who today reads Arnold Bennett?

It is a lost world and it was our world and it is a world scrubbed from the histories of ourselves.

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