Fresh from playing famed artist L.S. Lowry, Timothy Spall accompanies Greg Bruce on a brief but deep tour of the Auckland Art Gallery.
L.S. Lowry: [reading a letter] "Dear Mr Lowry, There is a simplicity to your work. Nothing is artificially created through likeness or representation. All is conveyed through sheer expression of feeling. [He becomes increasingly emotional at the word 'feeling', repeating it several times]."
Mrs Lowry (his mother): "I've cold feet."
A week ago, at Auckland Art Gallery, the British actor Timothy Spall, who plays L.S. Lowry in the movie Mrs Lowry and Son, from which the above exchange is taken, stopped, unprompted, in front of the 1987 Robyn Kahukiwa painting Te Whenua, Te Whenua, Engari Kāore He Tūrangawaewae (Placenta, Land, but Nowhere to Stand). "Look at that!" he said.
The painting, which he was seeing for the first time, appeared relatively simple, he said, but actually conveyed an enormous amount of power and emotion.
He said: "You go, 'Oh well, it's just this funny woman, pregnant with an upside down baby. Well what's that all about?' But if you look at it you go, 'Actually, my God, there's so much feeling in it. And it's for you to interpret it and to understand it but it's telling you something enormous.
"That's what art is about. You've got the imagery but you've got what's underneath it, what it's saying, how it's attaching to you - deep, deep inside you as a human being."
Spall was at the gallery as part of a short promotional tour to New Zealand to talk about playing Lowry, whose vibrant, life-filled paintings of otherwise bleak industrial northern English landscapes in the early-mid-1900s made him one of Britain's most famous and successful painters.
Spall, quoting Lowry, said: "You don't need brains to paint. You need feelings."
Mrs Lowry was bedridden for years, with her son as her primary carer. She didn't want him to paint, hated his paintings, thought he lacked talent and was wasting his time. She was cruel and horrible about that and many other things, in spite of the fact her son spent his days working as a rent collector to sustain their meagre lifestyle, then came home to look after her by night, painting only after she was asleep.
Her oppression of him was given added force by the absence of much else in his life. He was consciously not part of the art scene, nor the salons of the time and, as far as we know - mainly from his own testimony - he never had an intimate relationship. He was relentlessly working class, daily walking the streets by himself, knocking on doors and asking for money. He didn't appear to resent his mother for her casual cruelty. He loved her unconditionally, deeply, bafflingly.
Anyone could see what a crushing presence she was in his life, except, apparently, him. Long after she died, he turned down a knighthood, saying: "There seemed little point … once Mother was dead."
To explain Lowry's apparently bonkers relationship with his mother, Spall invoked Larkin: "They f***you up, your mum and dad. They don't mean to, but they do."
He said: "I don't think he was f***ed up. I don't think he was messed up any more than most people are. I think the circumstances were that he found himself the only child of a selfish, narcissistic woman, a disappointed, disappointed, aspirational woman who felt the cards of life had been dealt very unfairly to her, that she was in a situation that she wouldn't have chosen and constantly felt like she wished she were somewhere else.
Spall told the story of how, as a child, Lowry had been forced to follow his mother around with a stool, in case she had a swoon. He said: "You can say, 'Well, that's abuse.' That's all he had. He adored her. He absolutely adored her."
Spall's own father died young and his mother met a new man. "Their hobby was drinking," he said. But she got off the booze in her 50s and started to paint watercolours. "Some of them are really lovely," he said. "I've got a couple."
Whenever Spall told his mother about a new acting job he was working on, she would ask whether it was film or "the telly" and if it was film she would say, "Oh well, that's no good is it? I won't be able to see it." Nevertheless, he sometimes took her to film premieres. She saw Mrs Lowry and Son and liked it. She liked his paintings too, he said. She was proud of him. She died three months ago. "God bless her," he says.
Art is about imagery and feeling and it's about connection beyond reason. "Even if they are bad relationships, we're still made of them, aren't we?" Spall said. "We still are them."
L.S. Lowry: We don't need an art critic to tell us what we like, do we mother?
Mrs Lowry: Yes, of course we do! People need to be advised. It's mandatory.
At the time of writing, the ubiquitous film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes had given Mrs Lowry and Son a score of 59 per cent, making it, by the site's dichotomous judgment, rotten. The slightly more nuanced Metacritic aggregator was showing a score of 42 per cent, based on 10 critic reviews, of which it deemed eight to be mixed, one positive and one negative.
We may not need a critic to tell us what we like but do we need a critic to tell us what is good? What is the difference, if any, between those two things?
In an ever-more ubiquitous Marvel universe, an appreciation for the rare beauty of the small film may be becoming rarer. The story of Mrs Lowry and Son unfolds mostly in a single room, driving some critics crazy but allowing it to bloom in a way a more expansive story, with requisite relentless momentum, would never have space for.
Lowry's life was both long and large but the movie shows only a sliver of it, tilting it this way then that, exploring the following questions: When our desires conflict with those we love most, who and what should give way? In the game we play with our parents, what is the ideal score? How, amid the collected neuroses and sufferings bestowed on us by our parents, do we ever find our place in the world?
Lowry's painting style did not emerge fully formed. He had an early impressionistic phase, moved through a highly accurate representational period and only then began producing the paintings he became famous for, which were sometimes derided as childlike.
"He was searching for his own voice," Spall said. "He was good enough to know that being an artist who paints the other artists is not good enough to find your route into something that is a calling. You've got to paint like you. You've got to do something that is original to you."
Lowry fought to be something, in the face of the twin barriers of his mother and the daily grind of rent collecting, which he kept doing until he was 65, long after her death, long after he had enough money to quit and spend all his time painting.
Spall wasn't sure why he did that, but speculated: "I think it was important for him to be part of the world - not removed from it."
Spall studied acting at RADA, the school of schools for elite British acting talent, won the award for best student in his year and went on to have a career marked mostly by brilliant small performances in brilliantly small movies, particularly those made by British directorial genius Mike Leigh, although he was also a prominent and ubiquitous figure in the Harry Potter films.
In 2014, in a rare lead role, he won Best Actor at Cannes for his grunting, snorting, spitting portrayal of complex 18th/19th century British art genius J.M.W. Turner in the Leigh film Mr Turner. He learned to paint for that role and began to develop an increased appreciation for art. His painting output dropped away in subsequent years but picked up again when he started working on Mrs Lowry and Son, and it hasn't stopped. Some of his paintings now hang in The Lowry, a gallery complex in Salford and he is about to have an exhibition of his own at a gallery in Chelsea.
The struggle of creation is real and concrete for Spall, the painter. He knows and feels the pain inherent in the gap between the idea of, say, a tree, the application of paint to represent that tree and beyond the image, to whatever the tree is supposed to represent or to make us feel. In that gap is where art happens.
"That practical side is not about the bulls*** people talk. It's not about the flim-flam. It's the application of it that's most important. Same as acting, same as any form of collaborative art. The craft, the work that goes into it, the framework around the art - the 'art', whatever that is - is the thing. That's the thing that gets it there."
He stopped, unprompted, in front of a work called The First Waterfall, by Colin McCahon.
"I really like that," he said.
"What do you like about that?" I asked.
"There's just something about it," he said. "He says it's a waterfall but it's got a touch of, a bit of Francis Bacon in there as well, isn't there? There's also something a bit [long pause] genitalia. There's a bit of genitalia in there. And again - I don't want to sound like a pretentious twat - you've got a lot of feeling. Look at this. It's the painting in this reflection here, where the water's coming down there and then that reflection of that. So it's intriguing. It's also a bit disturbing, a bit like, 'What is this?' So it's got so many different things and it's also, just when you look at it, you go, 'Woah, look at that.'"
Spall thinks Lowry's landscapes, like Turner's, were often self-portraits, expressing something important about his life. Lowry's stylised figures, which became known as "matchstick men" were, Spall said, "painted with huge affection but also a taint, a touch of derision - a little bit like all pariahs see the world."
In 1966, Lowry did paint a self-portrait. It was a grey seascape, entirely barren, apart from a single phallic-looking pillar emerging from the water. He called it Self Portrait as a Pillar in the Sea. That was 27 years after the death of his mother.
Spall was married in 1981, is still married and he and his wife Shane have three children, the oldest of whom is now 43.
"Is this Colin again here?" Spall asked, entering a new room in which hung a series of 14 paintings in a line.
"Yes it is," the gallery person said.
"Oh now you see, you can see it all makes sense ... you get the whole breadth of it, the whole feeling. And so he's concentrating on a bit now [he swept what appeared to be an imaginary paintbrush through the air] - whoooaarrr! - so all of a sudden you can see this progression of what the elements do to the landscape. You know, what mood you're in, what you're feeling at the time you're doing it."
Those words sound solid enough, but then again they might be flim-flam. Who can say for sure?
L.S. Lowry: Everything is captured in the painting forever, isn't it?
Spall stopped, unprompted, on the gallery's first floor, in front of Gottfried Lindauer's portrait of Renata Kawepo, Tama ki Hikurangi.
"Look at this beautiful thing here!" he said. "This beautiful man! You don't know anything about him but you've got a dignity in there. You go, 'My God.' When was this painted? 1885. That's there forever. I mean, that's immortal. And it's so beautifully painted."
He got up so close to the painting his nose was almost against it. I half expected someone to politely ask him to move back but, of course, no one did.
"You know," he said, "Look at the skin in that! Look what he's got in the eye of this guy! Look at that. Look at the sweetness. There's a sadness in there. There's a real - there's a little bit of suspicion: 'I'm being painted. What's this all going to be about?' Look how he's caught that and all that's going on around here and you think, 'Oh! Ah!' You know? But look at that eye. It's just so beautiful."
Spall was clearly moved by the paintings, increasingly so as he moved around the gallery. Passing a small Goldie portrait, he appeared to almost become hypnotised, drawn into it as if by tractor beam until again his face was almost hard against its surface. Someone was talking but he appeared to no longer be able to hear them: "Look at that as well!" he said, awed.
He stopped to look at a work called Final Domestic Expose - I Paint Myself, by New Zealand artist Jacqueline Fahey from 1981-2. I prompted it, not as any sort of statement or provocation, I just liked the work and thought it might be interesting to talk about. It is a self-portrait, with Fahey nude in the centre, painting herself, surrounded by a chaotic collage of family and the detritus and accumulata of domestic life.
"She's very good," Spall said.
"The wonderful thing about that is it's personal and it's a mixture, so many different things to look at. It's also incredibly affectionate and it's also both sensual and it's somebody being totally honest about the folds but there's a beauty in it and a pensiveness. She's looking at herself, obviously and there's a huge thing going on here but it also could be on top of an altar, couldn't it? An altarpiece. So, therefore, it's a piece of religious iconography … so there's also an expression of some deep faith in her life, or doubt, or both.
In the wall text alongside the painting, Fahey is quoted : "When I use the term 'feminist artist' I mean I am a woman (and that helps), but by marrying, having children, and being confined by that experience, I am leading the life most women lead. I would even after that not call myself a feminist artist if I did not use that experience and physical world as the material to comment politically on that special way of spending one's life ... If in the arts the belief that what is right, normal and the proper way of seeing things is male, upper class and Päkeha, all other ways of seeing things are as difficult to comprehend as a new language."
L.S. Lowry [objecting to his mother's demand he submit a particular painting for exhibition]: But I painted it for you.
Mrs Lowry: Of course you did. But I want everyone to admire it.
The last thing Spall gave his mother before she died three months ago was a cushion with one of his landscapes painted on it. She told him she liked it. She kept it in her room in her care home.
He'd known she was dying. She was nearly 90. He said she'd had a good life. "She was ready to go," he said.
He described her as a wonderful character. "She was a terrible, burning hypochondriac, anxiety, then the last couple of weeks of her life, she couldn't have cared less about any of it. She was ready to go. You know, that's taught me a lesson," he said.
I was about to ask him more about that lesson but before I could he was distracted by an elaborate piece of furniture sitting outside the gallery's new exhibition of Danish design.
"That's a lovely chair," he said.
I wasn't especially moved by it.