LS Lowry: the industrial revolution

A good exhibition may enhance or deepen our understanding of an artist, but very few transform our perception of a well-known name. Tate Britain’s new Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life, curated by Marxist art historian TJ Clark and his American wife Anne Wagner, is the most radical and exciting re-evaluation of a British artist I have ever encountered, and a thrilling display of how paint conveys ideas, time, place – building a self-contained world at once absorbing and convincing in its relation to lived experience.

Scale, ambition, intent and variety are qualities that we have not, until now, associated with LS Lowry. In a room of his paintings, sameness is the initial impression; you have to look for difference. Clark and Wagner have looked hard and wide, and produced a homage that explains both why repetition matters and how Lowry developed beyond it. Darkness and light, fiction and representation, order and chaos are negotiated through a show that traces the evolution over a lifetime of a project – “to put the industrial scene on the map, because no one had done it” – no less grand because Lowry formulated it so modestly.

“Industrial Landscape Wigan” (1925) is Lowry’s first fully realised portrayal of the Britain left behind by a century of industrialisation. It is dusky black, an impressionist tonal oil of puffing chimneys looming over a grim scene of the sort described a decade later by George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier: “A world from which vegetation had been banished, nothing existed except smoke, shale, ice, mud, ashes and foul water.”

Tate includes a foggy view of Manchester by Lowry’s teacher, French late-impressionist Adolphe Valette, to indicate both his legacy but also liberation from it. Lowry assumed, Clark argues, that “an artist truly wishing to paint out of English experience between the wars could learn nothing to the purpose from present-day Ecole de Paris.”

Thus Lowry began with misty genre scenes – “Pit Tragedy” (1919), “The Lodging House” (1921) – which gradually opened out, in 1926-1927, into street life narratives of working class struggle: “A Northern Hospital”; “An Accident” (in fact a suicide), “The Market Place”. By 1928-1930, when Lowry had just turned 40, these expanded, with “The Removal” (an eviction), “Outside the Mill”, “Coming from the Mill”, into crystalline cityscapes characterised by a dry precision in the treatment of brick, slate, wood; geometric organisation of houses and fences, chimneys as a mosaic of horizontals and verticals, and unreal figures thinned into flats in staccato motion.

The smokiness is still there but dominant is the flaky white paint, by turns abrasive, weighty, reduced and scraped down, or seeming to evaporate in delicate marks incongruous with the thudding ordinariness of the scene. The whiteness evokes the cold northern air but also a light between unforgiving visibility and radiance – fact and enchantment.

Lowry’s conversion to this industrial subject is famous. In a crisis of downward mobility, his family moved from a leafy Manchester suburb to Pendlebury, a factory town. “At first I detested it,” he wrote. “Then, after years, I got obsessed by it. One day ... as I left the station I saw the Acme Spinning Company’s mill. The huge black framework of rows of yellow-lit windows standing up against the sad, damp, charged afternoon sky. The mill was turning out. I watched this scene – which I’d looked at many times without seeing – with rapture.”

The recurring motifs – chimney, mill, warehouse, terraced row – are a strategy, not just the result of obsession: repetition and narrowness are features of factory and slum life. Lowry worked as a rent collector and knew quotidian dreariness at close hand; he was also used to keeping accounts, and his paintings display an unsentimental, ledger-like notation of pictorial facts even as they become more compositionally complex.

‘River Scene (Industrial Landscape)’ (1935)

In “Excavating Manchester” (1935), carefully conceived design and colour weigh up the force of human and mechanical labour; angles formed by the cranes give a sharp-edged geometry, stark black-and-white contrasts heated by touches of bright red, cooled by blue, add drama. In the catalogue this is reproduced alongside a constructivist set design by Liubov Popova; Fernand Léger also comes to mind. There are no socialist heroics with Lowry but in a decade he has gone from the Victorian rhetoric of industrial gothic to modernist detachment, Kafkaesque neutrality.

That artifice reaches a peak in the show’s highlight: five 5ft composite landscapes, never before exhibited together, in which Lowry in the early 1950s upped his game to monumental scope, employing his mastery of sweeping panorama, miniaturisation, reiterating familiar motifs but underlining how each element contributes to a pattern of signs and ciphers, a piece of abstraction. “The Pond” (1950) centres on a crusty white oval, filled with pleasure boats but suggesting a bombed-out crater, around which domed factory roofs and viaduct arches rhyme with the curve of enclosed water. “Industrial Landscape: River Scene” (1950) is as geometric: rows of streets set against overflowing swampland: order and disorder, coherence and collapse. This is painting as building, repairing the scars of war, materialising in pigment an industrial society in decline.

Lowry savours the fictional status of these canvases – “Blank Blank and Co” is inscribed on a warehouse in the leaden-hued “Industrial Landscape (Ashton under Lyne)” (1952) – but he records a dying world too. In “Industrial Landscape” (1953), an open-armed statue, its pose mimicked by a little girl, leads the eye down a road where funeral crowds cluster around a hearse, then beyond to a panoply of chimneys fading into a haze.

In the quintet’s finale, “Industrial Landscape” (1955), the belching chimneys are mere rose-white dreamscape beneath glacial skies. Discarded, rusting boilers and truck bodies look real enough but, everywhere, streets start in deep perspective, then peter out in ghostly grey. Opposite hangs “Bargoed” (1965): an apocalyptic vision of roads and mines in Wales sinking into white dust – the fiction of social wholeness finally, violently, discarded.

Lowry collected Rossetti but also liked Magritte and Lucian Freud. A near-surrealist vein runs through his oeuvre: the giant façade of “St Augustine’s Church, Pendlebury” stark against damp white ground; outsized “Gate Posts” towering over small churches and telegraph wires. Alienation and belonging, the moment of now and obsolescence, absurdity and truth: what a revelatory, enjoyable, historically significant show.

‘Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life’, Tate Britain, London, to October 20.

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