London: Tate Publishing, 224 pp., £24.99; £19.99 (paper)
Aside from Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, and David Hockney—and, possibly, Henry Moore (for viewers of a certain age) and Damien Hirst (if you have only recently been paying attention)—British art of the past hundred or so years is a dimly known terrain for American audiences. The very considerable figure of Walter Sickert, for instance, whose nudes, portraits, and scenes of people in rooms or in the theater have the heft and scope of Bonnard, his contemporary—and who could imbue all these kinds of images with a note of uneasiness that is unique to him—has never been seen in the United States in a representative showing. He remains a painter we discover on our own, even in London, where his pictures are rarely seen in number.
An even more exciting figure for viewers unfamiliar with British art—and one whose work, like Sickert’s, is not reliably much in evidence in London—is L.S. Lowry. A painter associated with the sites and people of England’s industrial North West, Lowry, who died in 1976 in his eighty-ninth year, is probably not known anywhere beyond his homeland, which is too bad in that he is a more invitingly strange and idiosyncratic artist than Sickert, Freud, and Hockney combined. He has long been a divisive and uncategorizable figure even for his viewers at home. It is a status that a large, overdue, and narrowly conceived exhibition currently at Tate Britain doesn’t really change.
A native of Manchester who spent his life in the region, Lowry was, remarkably, Britain’s only visual artist to make industrial Lancashire, with its factories and smoke-belching chimneys and crowded streets, his or her predominant subject. Even more remarkable is how he went about it. He had a special feeling for the graphic weights and balances in a picture, and while he was often dealing with material that, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, was on the face of it unpromising, even dismal, his pictures are treats of linear inventiveness.
In paintings that show factories, shops, city parks, and fairs, and are generally marked by scores of small standing or walking figures, Lowry can seem like the chronicler of a community. He might present masses of people heading for or returning from a shift at a mill. His subject could be the moment when people congregate on the street to see who will be taken into the “fever van” that has pulled up to one of the attached (and tiny) houses nearby. He paints as well the widespread depredations of industrialization. He can show an industrial vista that has at its center a vast pool of water that is undoubtedly stagnant and is home to half-submerged boats and little islands of, we assume, chemical waste.
Yet Lowry’s aim was not to reveal the monotony of working-class lives or the ravages of factory production. Temperamentally, he was a conservative …