Art | Lowry and the painting of modern life

Tate Britain | By Joseph Funnell
Four stars

IT’S ALWAYS a shame when great paintings get ubiquitously merchandised through tacky Christmas cards and biscuit tins. Many works by British artist LS Lowry have succumbed to such a fate, but in Tate Britain’s groundbreaking retrospective, radical art historians TJ Clark and Anne M Wagner have happily subverted this humdrumification.

Lowry is best know for his idiosyncratic urban landscapes, depicting England’s lost industrial north and a bygone working-class culture where crowds of matchstick men pour straight out of the factories into the football stands. His curiously arresting panoramas conceal tragic episodes of daily life – from evictions to suicide – with a depth of pathos that is easily lost on a placemat.

Here, Clark and Wagner display the works alongside songs and films of urban life that offer a sensitive window into the changing world behind Lowry’s enigmatic visions. In one room he is placed alongside eminent French contemporaries including Van Gogh and Seurat, which not only stress his international acclaim, but argues for his place in art history.

Lowry is politically confusing – a long-time Lancashire Tory who was co-opted by the Labour government in the post war period (Harold Wilson made Lowry his official Christmas card). So why exhibit him now? Is Tate making a candid social comment? Director Penelope Curtis diplomatically assures us it was merely a case of waiting for the right curators. Either way, the exhibition achieves the rare accolade of being incredibly informative, yet far from exhausting and for those who still want to indulge in some chocolate-box sentimentality, there is an array of Lowry-print goods to greet you on your exit – they are even selling flat caps.