Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887 – 1976)
Andrew Warhola Jr. (1928 – 1987)

I haven’t visited the galleries at The Lowry before, so I viewed the Warhol & The Diva exhibition and the permanent Lowry Collection side-by-side.

The strong parallels between the lives of the two artists took me by surprise, as did the similar ‘shape’ of the two shows.

Both exhibitions begin with examples of the artists’ most well-known work. In the case of Andy Warhol, these are prints of Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, which are so familiar that I found them unaffecting and bland… a bit like a shop display.

Andy Warhol - Marilyn Monroe, circa 1962, several examples of which are currently at The Lowry.

Then, within both exhibitions, there follows a consideration of the artist’s personality and creative motivation, as revealed through less well-known works, film footage, comments and quotes.

One of the rooms housing the Lowry collection is devoted to pictures which represent (and quotes which describe) L.S. Lowry’s intense loneliness, which has been well-documented.

L.S. Lowry - A Landmark

Lowry said: “Had I not been lonely, none of my work would have happened.”

The most interesting images in the Warhol exhibition are photographs of Warhol himself, made-up as a woman, taken during the early eighties; some by photographer Christopher Makos for a project entitled ‘Altered Image’.

These pictures fascinated my kids, who forced me to look through a book recording an entire photo-shoot. The pages showed Warhol grappling with the indignity of ageing, and I found myself unexpectedly sympathetic, having always considered him a social predator and a parasite.

L.S. Lowry - Portrait of Ann, , 1957

There was an unexpected similarity between some of Warhol’s ‘Diva’ images and Lowry’s portraits… red lips, simple colours, high contrast, stark, simplified images, blank expressions and eyes looking straight ahead. But generally speaking, the artistic output of the two men was very different, though their lives contained many unusual parallels:

  • both men were prolific fine artists of the twentieth century, who achieved fame and recognition during their own life times;
  • both operated outside the fine art establishment and were often critically dismissed by the elite;
  • both spent their lives in their particular cities, reflecting and recording their environment, and eventually becoming central to the wider public perception of those cities;
  • both were interested in the modern world as they found it and the effects of industrialisation and mass-production;
  • both were apparently celibate and seemed uncomfortable with human intimacy;
  • both described feelings of intense alienation and detachment.
  • In the case of each exhibition, I was left with a strong impression of art flowing from spirits unhappily trapped within an existence, or a body, which was the source of disatisfaction and frustration.

    But of course, the two artists inhabited entirely different worlds and this affected the character of their work: Lowry recorded grim industrial Northern England, while Warhol experimented with concepts and images related to mass-production, selling and image-making, which he initially encountered as a commercial artist in New York.

    And Warhol was a collaborator and socialite while Lowry was famously solitary… though both were described as shy people-watchers by those who knew them well.

    In fact the two men were creatively engaged with flip-sides of the same industrialised culture: the dehumanisation of manufacturing and mass-production on the one hand; the glamour and artifice employed to sell mass-produced products to the masses on the other.

    The gulf between the two artists seems to involve geography and ‘aspiration': Lowry’s ordinary people were oppressed by industrialisation and he comes across as an oppressed, repressed individual; meanwhile Warhol’s celebrities were elevated above the masses, often through the manipulation of their images… and Warhol aspired to be (and became) one of them.

    Perhaps the individual stories of L.S. Lowry and Andy Warhol highlight the ‘geography of aspiration’… New York (and Hollywood) being the 20th Century ‘capitals of aspiration’… and Manchester and Salford occupying positions at the other end of the spectrum, in spite of the cities’ history of industrial and commercial innovation. Certainly Lowry appears to have drawn the short straw… and he spoke of how he initially hated his environment before he started to embrace it through art.

    The irony is that Manchester/Salford and New York have so much in common physically: big, dirty ‘port’ cities which boomed through the 19th century, with extensive in-land waterways, warehouses and sewers, urban decay, mass immigration and a poor climate. But New York has always remained closely entwined with the American dream while Manchester and Salford have been mired in Britain’s post-war, post-industrial nightmare – and art can so easily become propaganda.

    Lowry and Warhol mirrored their environments in their own very individual ways, and, in so doing, affected the reputations of the cities in which they spent most of their lives: Warhol added to New York’s glamorous myth, while Lowry generally re-enforced Manchester & Salford’s woefully unglamorous image. It’s that British habit of being truthful and down-to-earth… it so often works against us..

    Warhol & The Diva is at The Lowry until Sunday 25th September 2011. Free admission.