Alibis

Matisse in the Studio (Royal Academy of Arts, 5 August-12 November 2017)

A few years ago, Tate Modern had a large exhibition of Matisse’s paper cut outs and collages — making grand claims for his having invented the form and ignoring Mrs Delaney and various Bluestockings in the process. I was more impressed by a smaller show (I think an Arts Council Collection tour?) I stumbled upon in Berwick whilst on a Lowry trail. It was impressive, but I realised that I had not knowingly seen a Matisse oil painting.

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A Boy’s Best Friend is his…

L. S. Lowry: The Art & the Artist (The Lowry, Salford Quays)

A few years ago I was lucky enough to have the Tate Britain exhibition of L. S. Lowry to myself for my birthday.

Well, maybe for a minute.

Ten seconds.

But it was mine.

About twenty years ago I went to Salford for a job interview and looked at the Lowrys on display in the Salford Museum and Art Gallery, which was since moved to a purpose-built gallery on Salford Quays. In the meantime I’d visited Berwick on Tweed and South Shields — Lowry holiday spots — an exhibition of drawings (at Sunderland?) and the Jerwood Lowry and the Sea exhibition.

All of this showed he was more than the naive artist of the matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs claim; for a start he was taught painting for a number of years in the Manchester and Salford area.

Going to the Lowry — the largest public collection of his art — reveals an even richer story, although there are perhaps too many pieces of work to deal with in a single trip.

It all hangs on the mysterious Portrait of Ann and his repeated claims that his art — even of phallic columns in the sea — is a series of self portraits.

He was born into a reasonably well off family and lived in a nice part of Manchester — his father a lay preacher and a clerk expecting to become a partner and his mother a piano teacher. But they were living beyond their means and moved to Pendlebury, with Lowry having to get a job as a rent collector rather than becoming an artist. He used his first wage packet to pay for lessons, but his growing interest in representing the industrial north west did not win him British customers — although he was successful in mainland Europe. The death of his father left him in debt and led his mother to take to her bed until she died.

Lowry had found his vision after a Manchester Guardian critic had told him his paintings were too dark — he started priming his canvases with layers of white paint to create a lighter background. Frequently he adds a railing or a curb or a brown shade along the bottom edge of his canvas as if it is a proscenium arch.

At the Tate Britain show, they were selling copies of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author without any explanation – apparently it was a favourite play and it expires a certain amount of meta drama and the issue of representing the real.

Meanwhile we have the Portrait of Ann,his offering to a Royal Academy show and atypical of how he was thought. Who was this woman? Sometimes he said she was a model, a daughter of a Yorkshire industrialist, a god daughter, other times a prima Donna ballerina, presumably for the Rambert. She was Ann Herder or maybe Ann Hilder. But apparently she has never been traced and yet she appears across dozens of paintings.

An ex? A model glimpsed in the streets?

In footage shown at the gallery, a suited Lowry — looking for all the world like a William S. Burroughs — explains his favourite composers are Donazetti and Bellini, the latter recommended to him…

…by Ann.

Once Lowry started earning money from his paintings he started buying art — an early Lucian Freud, various late Dante Gabriel Rosettis. These, apparently, were hung in his bedroom and were mostly portraits of Jane Morris.

These were perhaps his impossible girl, a woman forever out of reach.

The guide to the exhibition pointed to a painting The Funeral Party (1953) with nine distinct and disconnected figures — possibly Lowry’s father to the far right, a Lowry as child on the left, apparently wearing a dress. The boy is looking at a young girl in shorts. Cross-dressing or a phenomenon of hand me downs, I wonder? Nine figures in search of an artist.

Would this make one of the women his mother?

There’s a double portrait where a Lowry-like figure over laps with an Ann; male and female. His nightmarish self portrait Head of a Man is apparently painted over an earlier self portrait on top of a portrait of a woman, possibly of his mother. There is, apparently, a portrait of Ann of the same dimensions.

It seems as if Lowry could never quite please his mother, could never be the son she wanted — more to the point, could never be the daughter she wanted. The Anns and the later pictures of miniskirted young women clearly offered an erotic charge for him — given a comment in the gallery’s documentary about “innocent girls playing tennis”, I wonder if he ever saw that Athena poster of a tennis player — but we also need to remember that he saw all of his art as a self portrait. He also painted erotica, found after his death, destroying or tearing up some of it.

Whilst we must not ignore the class analysis at the heart of his art — the thoughts of a friend that Salford gallery or art school was not the place for the likes of them, the social climb and fall, the thin line between making do and poverty, the snobbery of the London sophisticates — there seems to be an attempt to heal a wound in his art. This seems to have failed.

Lowry never married — perhaps he was too involved in supporting his mother, perhaps he wasn’t interested in women that way… It’s a wild kind of speculation, but was there some kind of masquerade or cross dressing, did he try to become — in art or reality — the daughter? Was Ann an imaginary friend?

I honestly don’t know. Maybe Ann was just Ann, but why mislead so often and wildly about her in interviews?

And meanwhile, crazily, I hear the strains of a Bernard Herrmann score and a vision of Mrs Bates….

And He Painted Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Sharks

Lowry by the Sea (Jerwood Gallery, Hastings, 11 June 2015-1 November 2015)

Whilst my birthday is all too often a series of examples of bad timing, I was lucky enough to have one which coincided with a members’ private view of the L.S. Lowry exhibition at Tate Britain. For a few glorious moments, I had the exhibition to myself. Lowry is one of those artists we’re not meant to like because people like him and because there was a one-hit wonder in the 1970s about him.

What that exhibition made clear was that Lowry was a greater artist than given usually credit for – although I suspect his faux naivitée could be objected to. Whilst Alfred Wallis was self-taught, Lowry attended the Manchester School of Art and was trained by French Impressionist Pierre Adolphe Valette. Lowry made sense in terms of Impressionism, even if you don’t accept his own constructions of working class realities as art in their own right.

I stumbled across the fact that there was a Lowry show at the Jedward Jerwood Gallery, a newish and controversial space at Hastings. It’s a fifteen minute train ride back from Bexhill (where Riley is) or a two-hour walk. The Jerwood is home to the Jerwood Collection, the philanthropic gathering of art by a pearl company which also gives prizes for painting, drawing and sculpture. The collection is mainly early twentieth century British, but I have to say it can come across as a bit muddy and grey in its pallette. I think I’ve been disappointed by the two big exhibition rooms on the right as you enter – I can’t recall a show blowing me away there. At the moment it’s a selection from the Fraser Collection, along with Scottish artists from the Jerwood, and I confess to being underwhelmed. There was some interesting sculptural pieces in the space where there was the Marlow Moss show.

But the hit or miss part of the Jerwood is the two upstairs rooms that tend to have temporary shows. At the moment, it’s Lowry, representing the seaside. Should we be surprised that his choice of holiday destination was Berwick on Tweed, South Shields and Sunderland? The Jerwood does like its sea exhibitions, but this is a good one.
There’s only really one Lowry that is immediately recognisable as a Lowry, July, the Seaside (1943), a series of tiny incidents on the beach – games being played, a punch and judy kiosk, sitting, lying, walking, prams, swings. It is the urban crowd transplanted from factory gates and football matches to the sea – possibly in north Wales. What is striking is that the people are dressed much the same – there is no concession to sea and sun. Still, there’s a war on.


Berwick Jetty
The figures are more impressionist in his Spittal Sands (1960) – perhaps it’s a mistier day, but I reognise the spot which is just south of Berwick. And is that the same harbour arm in Untitled (Beach Scene with Central Monument and Chimney), sketched in felt tipped pen? There’s a chimney or two that makes me think of the (fish?) smoking chimney in Spittal.

There’s also South Shields – Waiting for the Tide (1960) – showing Lowry’s love of solitude and quiteness and isolation. Am I misrecognising A Ship (1965) as Tynemouth?

Is that a version of the aerials next to Tynemouth Priory? But there’s a harbour arm he will have lost (and yet I recall two paintings of the same scene, I think Sunderland, where towers were moved. He’s an artist who will recompose landscapes.)
Then, there’s the Self-Portrait as a Pillar in the Sea (1966), awfully phallic. It’s not a surprise to me – do I recall drawn versions of this at Sunderland? There is another painting like this, also 1966, in Sunderland.

Lowry writes, somewhere, “Look at my seascapes, they don’t really exist you know, they’re just an expression of my own loneliness.” In some paintings the sea and sky merge – the elemental boundaries merge. And then, somewhere again, he writes, apparently about the world of art, “I spent my whole life wondering what it all means, I can’t understand it, don’t understand it at all, can’t see any point in it myself. Still, there it is, you keep on working, and you keep on wondering what it all means, and it goes on and on and on and, there you are.” It reminds me of childhood reading, it reminds me of Eeyore.

And I had to laugh.

There’s a Lowry cartoon called The Shark (1970) where the shark is the art world and the person in the shark’s mouth is Lowry. Better than Damien Hirst’s shark. There are other people in the sea. Waving. Or drowning.

I had a sudden flash, at this point, of someone else that had a reputation for being gloomy, but was also blackly comic. I wondered if they ever could have met – the other one was an insurance clerk, but Lowry was a rent collector. I thought, for a moment, he worked for the Pru. Ah well.

But this is a show to see.