Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions Ways of the World

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions Ways of the World

Article excerpt

Laura Knight Portraits National Portrait Gallery, until 13 October The popular conception of Dame Laura Knight is of an energetic woman piling on the paint in the back of a huge and antiquated Rolls-Royce at Epsom Derby, the door propped open to the view, or charging off in pursuit of gypsies, clowns or ballerinas.

A widely popular and successful artist, she painted people in action in a robust, realistic style, and was able to compete with men on their own terms, managing to get herself elected to that hitherto almost entirely masculine preserve, the Royal Academy. But wasn't there something slightly mannish about her? Her pal Alf Munnings made a joke about that, and certainly you see her kissing her model Ruby on the lips in the fascinating news clip about her famous war painting 'Ruby Loftus Screwing a BreechRing', which shows Laura and the chaps all smoking like troopers in the Academy galleries. (Those were the days! ) She was married to the mild-mannered Harold Knight, a painter whose work hasn't lasted as well as hers, and they had no children. Any suspicion that she might have been lesbian is offset by her evident adoration of Squire Munnings. But was that admiration for his great skills as a painter, or for his unusual personality?

Enough of these biographical speculations, it is the art that counted most for these painters - or was it? Surely it was not for nothing that both wrote extensive autobiographies (Laura two volumes, Sir Alfred three), and recognised the value of presenting a nicely honed self-image to the public to enhance their saleability as artists. Munnings was the bluff countryman, the no-nonsense opponent of Picasso, while Knight was the down-to-earth working woman who let it be known that she preferred to take a bus home rather than a taxi after dining with the Prince of Wales. To a degree this was calculated showmanship: they each exaggerated aspects of their personalities, just as actors traditionally did (wearing flamboyant clothes and stage make-up in ordinary life):

it was good for business. To balance the myth of the genius starving in the attic, there have always been artists skilled in the ways of the world. Laura Knight was one of these.

Unlike today's devoted self-promoters, who have demonstrably less artistic originality than business acumen, Laura Knight (1877-1970) was a real painter of considerable talent and unimpeachable industry. She is best known for her figures in landscapes, so this smallish exhibition of portraits presents a less familiar aspect of her output, though with many of her strengths to the fore. The exhibition starts with her marvellous 'SelfPortrait' of 1913, in which she depicts herself in an old red cardigan in the studio between two nudes, one the model, the other her painting of the model. This then is a picture within a picture, a slightly tricksy image of her painting herself, but also a wonderfully direct portrayal of nude and clothed flesh, daring in conception and dashing in its paint.

We the viewers are made to feel very much the observers (or voyeurs) - a role often assumed by the artist and viewer together - presented as we are with three back views (the model, Laura's painting of her, Laura herself), though the artist has turned her head to allow us to admire her strongly featured profile. There is a further relevance to this image. As a female art student, Laura was denied access to nude models, which she felt gave the male students an unfair advantage. …

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