‘The Loneliness of Lowry’: Exhibition Review

‘The Loneliness of Lowry’: Exhibition Review

On 7th August, I visited the L.S. Lowry exhibition at the Abbot Hall, Kendal. I was spending the day in Kendal, meandering to waste a day as pleasantly as possible whilst waiting for a friend. A few notes follow.

The gallery is in a very grand old house. Next to the reception desk was an Auerbach print that I studied whilst a couple paid entrance fees and so on. Visitors must pay a high fee, though students and other “concessions” are free. I was glad I got in free, because I resent paying to see art. I got a little sticker from a flustered woman, who took my bag from me.

Going up the dark wood stairs, a Lucian Freud sketch. Other things I forget, and a grandfather clock. The Lowry was separated off in three rooms.

The first room had some of the best of the paintings. Chiefly, a great domestic scene and an early self-portrait. Amongst these were also smaller pieces – experiments perhaps.

It was going fine, but then, in the second room, I spent some time reading the exhibition catalogue. It was, in short, a rather sickening attempt to recuperate Lowry to bourgeois values.

I guess I should have expected it, since it was there from the outset. The paintings confront us with ‘bleak’ industrial urban scenes and moments from everyday (working class) domestic life – as well as ‘empty’ rural landscapes and seascapes. The challenge these alienating paintings present is deflected by the bourgeois, who avoids the latent critique by abstracting it to a single figure: the ‘fundamental loneliness of the human condition.’

In a manoeuvre of utter (if, perhaps, unintentional) contempt for the work itself, this is then further abstracted into the myth of the man – the lone genius – and we thus arrive at ‘The Loneliness of Lowry’.

No wonder, then, as the catalogue tells us, Lowry cringed at the idea of the original exhibition, in 1968, of these paintings under the same title. As he said: ‘It’s rather different to do loneliness in paint, than in words’.

Part of Lowry’s challenge is the (perhaps only partial) restoration of the material world to art, and vice versa. In my mind, Lowry’s works critique the bourgeois separation of Art from actual social conditions and lived experience.

He achieves this in many different ways. Most obvious is the ‘content’, or subject of the paintings – the ‘bleak’ scenes which challenge the idea of the ‘beautiful’. I’m also drawn to the way he applies paint – roughly, sometimes thick and sometimes thinly, baring the paint strokes and even the surface of the canvas/board. Often the paint is cracked. This links in with the way he draws his characters – his ‘stick men’. Lowry’s ‘realist’-experiment constantly foregrounds the materiality of the work, and the act of its production.

This sensuous quality is also taken in a different direction in the blatant references to sex and desire (breast-hills and phallic monuments, cigarettes, chimneys, &c.). But, far from displacing or distancing sex, these references (which are in no way oblique) foreground the physicality and sensuality of lived experience. Beyond this, sex comes to thematize the sensuous (re)appropriation of the world.

This last is differently figured in the very emptiness of Lowry’s seascapes and rural landscapes. For the absence of a ‘typical’ subject causes us to refocus on the presence of that little that is depicted – as well as the paint, the paint strokes.

I won’t go on, but I hope that I have begun to demonstrate the way that bourgeois curatorship and criticism abstracts, generalises, specializes – and finally recuperates – even that which sets out to critique the bourgeois world-view. More importantly, I hope I have gone at least some small way toward rescuing Lowry from infantilisation.

It only remains to say that the rest of gallery collection was extremely interesting – possibly more so than the Lowry. There was a selection of ‘St. Ives School’ avant-garde paintings and sculpture, some big name pieces (e.g. another Auerbach painting) and a great piece by Kurt Schwitters that was definitely my favourite of the day. The piece was called ‘Flight’ (1945), but unfortunately there’re no images of it online for some stupid reason (copyright, apparently). However, there is a link to something on Flight, here (click).

I enjoyed the rest of my visit to Kendal very much, and would especially recommend a little café you can find if you walk up the river path from the Gallery. It’s right on the front, with a couple of tables outside where you can sit looking at the river. Good coffee, and all sorts of other crazy cakes and stuff.



~ by Wit on August 29, 2010.

One Response to “‘The Loneliness of Lowry’: Exhibition Review”

  1. Ack, they’ve taken down some of the images – so my site is posting blanks. Nevermind – I’ll try to find replacements, and in the meantime, imagine an image :)


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