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Review: Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life

12/07/2013 16:24 BST | Updated 11/09/2013 10:12 BST

Lowry. Apparently you either love him or hate him. I wasn't sure where that left me, given that prior to visiting this exhibition, I was pretty ambivalent on the man and his work. After seeing this exhibition though, I am a convert.

That Lowry dedicated his career to portraying the life and times of the everyday man and women in the Industrial North is well-known. His paintings are characterised by the grim smoky industrial landscapes and the stick-figure men and women that crowd his streets. But the scale of this exhibition, which has brought together over 90 pieces, allows us to appreciate the emotional variety within his work.

Yes, there are plenty of paintings of broken, hunched over men and women crowding into the mills and factories. But there are also paintings of surprising community spirit and brief moments of joy such as VE Day, with street parties and bunting, and Flowers in a Window, with its fleeting glimpse of something natural in a wholly unnatural world.

There are also moments of tenderness in Lowry's work. It's hard to stand in front of work such as The Accident, on the suicide of a young woman, or The Removal, on a forcible eviction, and not be moved. Pit Tragedy, as the name suggests, shows us the worst that can happen, yet there's also sadness in the way the tragedy is depicted as routine.

The lack of sympathy that Lowry has for his subjects, something the man was vocal about (and was criticised for) actually gives his work its strength. An overly sentimental view of life in industrial Manchester - either as a place of tragedy or romantic suffering - would be misrepresentative. It is the ordinariness of the events Lowry depicts that give his work its strength.

The scope of the exhibition is wide, allowing inclusion of Lowry's few paintings not of Manchester.

The painting of the frivolity and buzz of Piccadilly Circus does seem to be the odd man out in the work on display but his pictures, done late in life, of the industrialisation of the Welsh hillsides fit in perfectly. By showing the harsh carve-up of the beautiful Welsh green valleys, it demands we understand that industrialisation knows no bounds. Nothing is sacrosanct, nothing remains out of its clutches.

The exhibition is not without fault. The inclusion of pieces by other artists such as Pissarro and Van Gogh doesn't work. The pieces by these artists has been added, I suspect, as compare and contrast with other artists using the realities of life as their inspiration, as well as showing how these artists inspired Lowry's work.

But actually these pieces do not illuminate much of Lowry's work or our appreciation of them. Also, given the size of the exhibition, there is no need for such padding.

Also Lowry himself is not without fault. He has his critics and some paintings do expose a technical gap in his abilities.

The Cripples is a particularly poor piece of work, the characters in the painting look identical to characters in the TV show South Park, a show that prides itself on its amateurish sketching. Given that it was painted in 1949, late in Lowry's career, it could have reasonably been expected that his technical abilities would have improved by this time.

But love him or hate him, one cannot ignore the fact that without Lowry's work, we would have little in British 20th century art that represented the rituals of the working man and woman. That life was grimmer up North than Lowry suggests is true, but at least his lack of sentimentality spares us pictures of glorious sunsets over Manchester or emotionally over-wrought funeral scenes. His work is far better than such cheap mawkishness.