Lowry is an artist who doesn’t seem to be very well known in the United States, but in the United Kingdom he is practically a household word. Many people encountering his work for the first time take him to be a folk artist, but in fact he studied art seriously for years, and the style on which he settled and for which he is best known came from a conscious artistic urge. In UK art circles the mention of “Matchstick Men” is pretty much reserved for Lowry, and although he painted just about every kind of scene over the years, he is remembered primarily for street and industrial scenes.
He is an odd mixture of closed artist and gregarious friend. Much is made of his supposed loneliness; he never married and is noted to have said at the age of 88 that he “had never known a woman.” However, he was also known to be a prodigious liar, not for self-aggrandizement or to deceive, but rather in an old fashioned, tall tale sense of fun. His friendships were, in fact, many and he socialized freely with the people who mattered to him. But he did not care for strangers, and he could not stand fans. He supposedly kept a packed suitcase at his front door so that should some stranger pop by unannounced, he could pretend to be on his way to the train station. (Caution: this may also be one of his lies. Ain’t art history fun?)
He worked until retirement primarily as a rent collector, but enjoyed considerable success as an artist in his lifetime. By the time of his death in 1976 he could look back in satisfaction on a career that was well received by both the general public and the artistic elite. He enjoyed that enviable position of having nothing much to prove to anyone at all.
A large print of the painting, A Procession, hangs on my living room wall. The parade in the background is in support of union action, whether organizing or striking, I do not know. Part of the charm of his work is how often you can discover pieces of political commentary hiding in unlikely places. In our modern time of slash and burn rhetoric it is easy to forget that there are subtle ways to get a point across as well. Equally, Lowry was not afraid to be blunt. That old folk saying, “Don’t piss on my boot and try to tell me it’s a rainstorm” is just another way of saying stop focusing on the label and pay attention to the thing itself.
And watch out for liars.