Aug 2013 Journal
If you ask people living in Manchester or Salford today if L. S. Lowry’s paintings resemble their home town, they will probably look blank. His northern cities with their ‘dark satanic mills’, the dour heritage of Britain’s industrial revolution, have disappeared. In Lowry’s early-20th-century mill-towns, with their smoking chimneys, etiolated white streets and skies, people are swept, bowed down with responsibility, towards the factory, the protest march or the football club. Even the church offers no sanctuary - just a dour and gothic sense of swallowing up mankind. Far-sighted Jewish industrialists, impressed by his record of what would become a swiftly changing world, are claimed to have been the first to snap up Lowry’s paintings.
Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life at Tate Britain (until 20 October) seems a strange title for an exhibition that so totally reflects the past. But in this regard Lowry was a modernist and, more importantly, a symbolist, a socially aware artist who shows us how the machine age dwarfs humanity against the looming edifice of the mills and the tiny, back-to-back tenement houses of the working poor.
Originally influenced by Utrillo, Lowry was encouraged by his teacher, Valette, to instil a more rounded, European atmosphere into his work. His skylines, with their reeking chimneys, were dark and threatening. Eventually commercial interests persuaded him to lighten the background, using flake white and raw amber. Against this pallor, Lowry’s walking masses possess no individuality. And yet it is the plight of man that engages him.
Most of the work here is repetitive, with no sign of his more emotional paintings of mining tragedies. But in the repetition he is really on-message, drawing you into his world - his panorama of little people crushed by the machine age. Finally, in two panoramas, Lowry accepts some grandeur in the industrial development which has subsumed the countryside - but they don’t quite come off.
This is all a far cry from artists like Diego Rivera, whose paintings of Mexico in all its primary colours and dour restraint, inspired by Mayan art, reflect the country’s early-20th-century turmoil. The Royal Academy’s exhibition, Mexico: A Revolution in Art, 1910-1940 (until 29 September), conveys the cultural renaissance spawned by revolution and political unrest in a series of photographs and paintings redolent of the fiction of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Between 1910 and 1920, presidential assassinations and revolution are depicted in an artistic obsession with death – hanged skeletons are photographed rotting on trees, or ritualistic imagery, whose brilliant colours tell a more sombre and symbolic story.
Artists from Europe and America flocked to Mexico in the wake of a new political invitation to restore art to the desolate country; political correctness was observed at first but was soon disregarded in favour of freer expression. Roberto Montenegro’s Mayan Women are almost reptilian in character, with dotted houses and trees as inscrutable as their faces. David Alfaro Siqueiros’s portrait of assassinated revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata has a terrifying ghostly appearance: there is death in his eyes beneath his heavy eyelids. Probably Philip Guston best captures the upheaval in his 1940 painting Gladiators, in which faceless bodies writhe in a work suggestive of Picasso’s Guernica.