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 person. He was generally apolitical. He said that it came to him at a specific moment that his native North West was a subject for an artist and, perhaps even better, that no one else had done it. And while his feeling for loss and disfigurement is undeniably real and powerful, it is the intricate and oddly buoyant way he renders it that makes him an original figure.
Lowry has a formal adventurousness that we don’t associate with English painting. Because he so clearly and emphatically outlines all the shapes and forms in his scenes, his pictures can seem akin to animation. Yet in works that have quietly sensuous paint surfaces, he resembles a folk artist in that his every detail tends to have a breathing, clearly handcrafted, and slightly wobbly-edged presence. He recalls, too, self-taught or outsider artists such as Adolf Wölfli or Martín Ramírez—or the late, New York–based Ralph Fasanella (whose early work, seen recently in a Chelsea exhibition, was unexpectedly engaging)—in that he has a gift, or possibly a mania, for organizing near and far space into a kind of pattern.
Looking at Lowry’s aerial views of towns from the 1940s and 1950s, which are among the peaks of his art, we feel we want to step inside the pictures and relive the way the many streets move deeper and deeper into space. When we step back and take in the given picture as a whole, however, the distant background seems to spring forward, so that we think we are looking at something flat, like one of Wölfli’s gameboard-type images.
Mostly, though, a work by Lowry is about the rhythmic relations he achieves between the elements in his pictures—especially between the boxy shapes of his buildings and the countless little people who clop along before them. Lowry’s figures, which can sometimes be merely quivering specks, are feats of miniaturist art; yet he scatters them about with such seeming ease it is as if they were swags of evergreens that he is draping around a room as finishing touches for a Christmas party.
What Lowry’s achievement amounts to has been an ambiguous issue for decades. For an exhibition held in Salford, England, in 1987, Marina Vaizey wrote in the accompanying catalog (which remains in print and contains a fine overview of his work) that “the paintings of L.S. Lowry are probably, almost certainly, the most familiar, the most loved and the most appreciated of all twentieth-century British art.” At the time (though still?) she was not out on a limb in saying this. Yet in 1986, when the Royal Academy mounted the notable exhibition “British Art in the 20th Century: The Modern Movement,” Lowry was not included, and in many standard surveys on the subject over the years he is often little more than mentioned in passing. The writing directly on him, though, suggests that he has partisans more than mere admirers. The situation is reflected in the hefty prices regularly attained for the staggering number of his works that come on the market—prices way beyond what most Sickerts fetch.
It is certainly easy to be drawn to the physically large, gentle, and retiring, but also sly, witty, and self-dramatizing man himself. A bachelor who let it be known that he had remained a virgin, Lowry lived for years with and tended a demanding and invariably ill mother. She didn’t much like his work. Yet as a one-time aspiring concert pianist she may have had something to do with the inherently musical nature of her son’s images. When she died, in 1939—he was then fifty-one—he suffered a nervous breakdown.
Lowry had little formal education, but he assiduously took courses in art schools, in Manchester and later in nearby Salford. This went on for some twenty years, mostly because he had time for it only at night. He generally painted at night, too. By day he earned a living, largely as a rent collector and cashier, working for the Pall Mall Property Company until the official retirement age of sixty-five. He never had a car, and covered much of his beat as a collector, which included Manchester, Salford, and the towns thereabouts, by foot.
When Lowry ultimately became, in his sixties and seventies, something of a national celebrity—through exhibitions in London and elsewhere in Britain—he was sought after for interviews, and he was a lively subject. He presented himself and his early years in an engagingly self-disparaging way, saying at one point, “Had I not been lonely, none of my work would have happened…. I work because there’s nothing else to do.” He talked about being drawn to dereliction, and he was funny about the ugly house he lived in. Spartan and ascetic in his needs and manner of living, he rejected numerous honors from Downing Street, including a knighthood. But known for feeling that it had been a “privilege” to have been a painter, he accepted membership in the Royal Academy.
In the photographs taken of him in these later years, he is usually in his rumpled raincoat and a hat, looking at something or someone on the rain-slicked streets or docks of Manchester or Salford, sketchbook in hand. The pictures were staged, and by that time much of the industrial landscape that he had made his chief subject no longer existed. But the photos are moving nonetheless. Much of his life, we feel, looked just like this.
Lowry’s method of working has no real counterpart in British, European, or American painting. An artist whose pencil drawings are often as satisfying as his paintings, he eventually figured out how to make what might be called painted drawings. He evolved a system where he employed only white, black, red, blue, and yellow ochre paint, which he took straight from the tube. If he wanted a dull rust red, say, or a bright scarlet, or green, or shades of gray, he got them by mixing from his core group.
Essentially, he treated his canvas or board as a piece of paper. He first gave this surface a thick coat of white. He knew from an experiment when he painted a board with pure flake white and stuck it in a drawer for, as he said, “six or seven years”—and then compared it with a freshly done panel—that his whites, like paper, would, over time, and to the given picture’s benefit, take on a slightly ivoried, parchment-like tonality. Lowry’s experiment with white is often mentioned in the writing on him, but his emphatic and fearless use of so much black—for the drawn structure of the work and for his little figures—is, oddly, rarely commented on. The prevalence of black and white in his pictures, however, is crucial. They cut against the easy charm of his small people and his toy-town settings and give his art a pervasive, and salutary, icy harshness.
Lowry’s body of paintings and drawings is enormous, and at a certain point one can find them bewilderingly interchangeable. The curators of the Tate’s current show, T.J. Clark and Anne M. Wagner, while writing as admirers, imply what many viewers have no doubt felt: that in the sheer volume of his work Lowry was something of an industrial producer himself. Yet his best pictures are very different from one another. A marvelous 1932 painting in the show entitled Excavating in Manchester, say, where the many squat-shaped workers, the cranes, and the lumber at the site are black, and the ground they are working on is white, conveys a stark standoff between black and white.
In the exquisite and effervescent 1943 Britain at Play, though, where Lowry’s essentially black-and-white world has been touched here and there with a dullish tan and a pale green, and the very distant people are like assemblies of flies, his subject could almost be that moment in the winter when spring is felt in the air. But then in Industrial City (1945–1948), to take a third work from the show, the large, spreading areas of white and the pronounced, black building shapes in this vast aerial view give a kind of electrical pulse to the smaller zones of red, mustard, and various blues everywhere. The result is a picture that in its tones and feeling has a kind of fiery symphonic fullness.
The most impressive aspect of Lowry’s art, however, may be the way it grew and changed over time. It is important to note that his pictures are fantasies. He continually made drawings of buildings, bridges, and sites that caught his eye, and very often these structures or places found their way into his work (and he was occasionally commissioned to do portraits of actual sites). But when he sat down to paint, he faced a white canvas and went along with whatever visual fandango came into his head.
If in the 1920s his work had the spirit of so many postcards of a dark and gloomy industrial scene, he gradually found ways to bring in more plain white, and his vistas, like Industrial City, became increasingly dynamic in their sense of space. But because of bombing in World War II and then a changed economy, much of the look of the industrial North West began to be altered in the 1940s, and Lowry’s interest in the material began to wane as well. He didn’t stop painting mills and townscapes with crowds. From his earliest days, though, he was interested in showing types of people and, too, seascapes, landscapes, and images of places and houses, whether set in towns, in leafy and quiet suburban surroundings, or nestled in remote hills—and these kinds of pictures now absorbed him more.
In them we follow an artist who is taking to extreme and logical ends his concept of how to make a painting. The 1953 Fylde, for instance, which can be seen in T. G. Rosenthal’s recent book L.S. Lowry: The Art and the Artist, is an amazingly elegant image of a road, fields, and sky done all in white. A few curvy black lines help make the space comprehensible. There are, of course, first-rate landscapes and seascapes by painters of all nationalities in the twentieth century that show the world in such an abstracted, or minimal, way. But I am not sure if any of them share Lowry’s particular atmosphere, where a radically pared-down view of space and form exudes such a sense of homeliness, mystery, and isolation.
Lowry’s pictures of people are even nervier. There are unsettling portraits of men of different ages with ravaged features and also small paintings and drawings, which are like notes the artist is making to himself, of people observed at a slight distance. Against a background of plain white (which we automatically read as a street), we might see, standing on their own or in little groups, oddly boyish businessmen, girls in tiny skirts and platform shoes, or people getting around in boxes with attached wheels. Lowry’s characters include a bearded lady and seemingly homeless people with masses of hair, wearing, it appears, robes or bags.
Lowry’s attitude can be satiric and plain goofy, but he isn’t delivering sermons about human degradation. Like the Philip Guston who in his own later years made paintings of Klansmen, Richard Nixon, pile-ups of shoes and limbs, and nightmares in general, Lowry, in his world of the stunted and strange, seems to be saying, “I can’t believe I am so immersed in these leftovers, and I can’t stop bringing them forth.” And as Guston’s late figurative works were met with wariness by the audience that had appreciated his earlier abstractions, so Lowry had to contend with admirers who felt he had gone too far. Even now it may not be clear to his wider audience that in painting isolates and the injured he was moving ever more deeply into whatever emotion prompted him in the beginning to paint a despoiled Lancashire.
How Lowry’s large and ever-evolving body of work would look when brought together is not, unfortunately, a concern of the present show. The first substantial London gathering of his art since a 1988 exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery, “Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life” is interested in how the artist handled the look of industrialism and the working-class scene. The handful of pictures in the show that don’t give us factories or masses of people have not always been well chosen. The sole landscape on hand is the dullest one I have ever seen. That a sizable amount of Lowry’s art is ignored is barely and then not accurately commented on in the accompanying catalog.
The exhibition’s organizers want to celebrate Lowry for being the sole British artist to tackle an epoch in the nation’s history—what they call the “dull catastrophe of its post-Imperial, post-Industrial-Revolution condition.” Clark and Wagner understand that Lowry’s point was not to protest the “dull catastrophe.” They see his art, rather, as mirroring or embodying it. If his pictures are (to use their words) cold, drab, and monotonous—if he produced a “deliberately limited and repetitive body of work”—that is because, they maintain, his subject was all these things.
When Clark writes that in some of Lowry’s paintings “the real energy, obduracy and confinement of working-class England are visible,” his carefully chosen words enliven our sense of the paintings and of the North West of the time. But his and Wagner’s exhibition shortchanges Lowry. He feels used and condescended to—as when, in the show’s first room, which includes pictures from different years, we read on a wall label that they are “representative of Lowry at his strongest,” or when, in the second room, works by him are hung with pictures by his teacher in Manchester, Adolphe Valette, and by Van Gogh, Seurat, Utrillo, and Pissarro. The point is to present the tradition his art is presumably a part of. The crude effect is that the Tate doesn’t trust that Lowry can stand on his own.
The exhibition’s low point may be the third room, where the curators have hung a seemingly endless number of remarkably similar small-size, vapidly colored, early-in-date pictures of workers walking about in factory towns. Done before Lowry began to dramatize the role that white could play in his art, these overly modest canvases appear to be Clark’s idea of the artist at his best.
As your mind glazes over from their grayed sameness, an archive recording of a 1914 music-hall song, “When Father Said He’d Pay the Rent,” is heard over and over. Having to listen to it while you are looking at artworks is a pain, and the song itself represents a nasty jab at the painter. It is a commonplace about Lowry that he couldn’t bear having the audience for his pictures know that he had a regular job, the thought being that the very fact would incline people to see him as an amateur or Sunday painter. (The information became widely known only in the months after he died.)
Broadcasting the song, Clark and Wagner may think that they are adding texture to their history lesson and winking, as it were, at the rent collector himself. Clark, in his catalog essay, wonders (with some callowness, I think) why Lowry, touchy about his job, didn’t “draw comfort from the comparison” with T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens, who held day jobs while writing their poetry. Eliot and Stevens, as it happens, are joined in Clark’s essay by long quotes from Kafka and Dickens and a discussion of D.H. Lawrence. On the walls of the show are lengthy quotes from, among others, Baudelaire and Orwell, and in a catalog essay where literary references have more juice than the art references, Clark also looks closely at figures who wrote about Lowry at the time and about his milieu.
But then Clark’s whole conception of Lowry has a literary cast to it. The painter’s work is significant to him not only because it takes stock of the industrial scene but because in acknowledging the realities of capitalist and working-class experience Lowry’s art is a presentation (as the exhibition’s title has it) of “modern life.” For Clark, who wrote about the subject in The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (1985), “modern life” is a term with an exact meaning. To show it, which he believes many French late-nineteenth-century painters did, is to find new artistic ways to depict the continually changing social conditions of one’s time—the way, principally, people work and find diversions from their work. It is what, he believes, Degas, Monet, and Seurat did in their pictures of outdoor cafés, suburban landscapes with distant factories, and Sunday strollers. In Lowry’s art, as he sees it, this “modern tradition” remains intact. The very titles of the painter’s early canvases, we read, give us “a map of the whole class struggle.”
The rigidity, however, even parochialism, of Clark’s thinking becomes apparent when we learn that, after Lowry, artists—all artists, British or otherwise—found it “difficult” to give us “the scene of the modern” (or, put simply, they stopped making lively realist pictures of social life). In the twentieth century, we are told, the “New,” or “modernity,” eventually retreated to the “home” with “its TV, its PC, its i-this and i-that. Modernity, that is, was more and more an up-close, close-circuit, self-administered soundtrack and visuality, not a ramifying built environment.”
Reading this, one thinks of Schwitters and Rauschenberg in their collages, or Beckmann in his attic scenes, or Bacon and Louise Bourgeois in their bedroom scenes, or Bruce Nauman in his video pieces—even Soutine with his bellhops and de Kooning with his devouring women. Didn’t they extend our sense of modern life in the twentieth century? Shouldn’t whatever constitutes modern life be by definition surprising, elastic, evolutionary? Clark is giving Lowry a laurel of a sort, but it imprisons his achievement in a highly specific sense of the past.
There are, though, as I have indicated, extraordinary pictures in the Tate show. It is a thrill all its own to see, in the final room, the large townscapes that Lowry painted in the 1950s and 1960s. For most of his life his pictures were relatively small in size. But when he was in his sixties and seventies he made a number of works that are five feet or more on a side, and the jump in format doesn’t seem to have been much of a strain for him. His big pictures from the 1960s, which were inspired by Welsh sites and show buildings set in rising terrains, are particularly impressive. Each presents deep space in another way, and in the end his painter’s touch, without losing any control, became raw and driving.
The downsides of the exhibition are that it denies Lowry the full sweep of his wonderful oddity, which is precisely what one feels young artists would find stimulating about him—plus it will probably now be many years before someone ventures to put forth another large show. Still, the works of this singular figure aren’t exactly disappearing. And who knows? Maybe his whites, as he thought, will just continue on their own to get lovelier.