13 AUGUST 1994, Page 29


L.S. Lowry R.A.: a selection of masterpieces (Crane K•+lman, till 31 August)

Inarticulate poetry

Giles Auty

one of the heartening features of London's network of private commercial galleries is its enterprise in providing the widest variety of fare for the viewing pub- lic. In this respect it generally performs better by far than the sector of major, publicly-subsidised galleries whose offi- cers try too often to impose their narrow view of what is significant in art on the rest of us. The fact that they cannot extract money from us involuntarily to spend how they will, no doubt explains why the managements of commercial gal- leries tend to keep on their toes. Certain- ly no one could have survived as an art dealer for so long as Andras Kalman without such awareness. Kalman came to Britain from Hungary before the last war and opened his first gallery in a former air-raid shelter in Manchester in 1949. It was there and then that the dealer first met L.S. Lowry. Kalman has remained a passionate supporter of Lowry's work ever since as the present, extended show of 38 paintings and ten drawings testifies. This is a major exhibition and one that allows us yet another assessment of the artist's work. What were Lowry's precise The Steps, 1940, by L.S. Lowry merits as an artist based on a working life of over 60 years?

I am at once more sympathetic to some aspects of the artist's work than some crit- ics while maintaining reservations about others. As an artist, Lowry's originality and utter independence from fashion are undeniable and these attributes certainly account for much of his popularity. To like his work superficially, at least, requires no particular intellectual effort. The idea of a plain man cocking a snook at critical snobs will probably appeal to self-made men and mavericks almost any- where, yet Lowry is as quintessentially British as an artist as Stanley Spencer, say, or Samuel Palmer. Admittedly, Lowry's subject matter was drawn entirely from a world he knew and with which he identified strongly. But was not the same equally true of an artist such as Toulouse- Lautrec? Yet while we may unhesitatingly accept the latter's liking for a demi-monde of pimps and prostitutes, Lowry's prefer- ence for architectural and environmental sordidness seems to strike us as odder altogether. In common with many, I pre- fer Lowry's earlier industrial scenes to his later. Paintings such as `A Manufacturing Town' 1922 or `A Removal' 1928 seem especially concentrated and controlled. Somehow we accept their greyness and soiled buildings automatically yet the for- mer even features blue sky. What makes Lowry distinctive is often what he omits: shadows and reflections, for instance. Absence of such obvious touches of natu- ralism contributes to a general awkward- nesss and feeling of naivety and primitivism. Herein lies Lowry's particu- lar appeal for some, although the artist demonstrated a number of sophisticated touches in other ways.

The question of would or could hangs over all naive painting; indeed, much of the latter's attraction lies in the artist's terrible struggles to overcome problems that could be solved simply with the help of superior knowledge. Thus Lowry can- not really make space work in his pictures just through colour and tone. Such suc- cess as he enjoys here arises almost entirely from use of scale and linear per- spective. Yet a frenzy of inarticulateness can be a form of poetry in itself. It is the honesty of Lowry's early struggles which makes them compelling. As in a film or play in which an escape route is obvious to the audience but not to the victim, a feeling of frustration wells up. Lowry's wrestlings with space in his all-white paintings of empty seas arouse sympathy, yet a more knowing painter could not have arrived at such an odd and partly strangled end result. By the middle 1950s a slightly knowing element of playing to a gallery seems to me to enter Lowry's work. I find something disturbingly know- ing in a painting such as 'The Raft' of 1956. A little knowledge can repel for none of us really wants the noble savage to start getting smart with his income tax returns. This was not why we liked him.

These are personal cavils about an enter- prising exhibition which has excited great interest not just from Britain but abroad. In a world of highly debatable art values, Lowry provides a solidity that certain investors cherish. How right they or Lowry's critics are in their views will emerge in time from the industrial haze the artist left behind him.