Laura Knight: Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery

Outside the canvas, a standing male painter – inside, a voluptuous reclining nude. The artist and his model: a hallowed relationship of Western art. Against such an established tradition, even the smallest anomaly becomes conspicuous. Such an anomaly, Laura Knight’s Self Portrait, captivates by the virtue of its unconventionality. It was this painting that drew me to see Laura Knight: Portraits.

Self Portrait opens the exhibition. Showing a female painting a nude, an exercise then forbidden to female arts students, the piece marks the end of Knight’s formal art training and the beginning of freer studies as graduate artist. The artist is completely dressed, following the conventional rules of self-portraiture. In comparison, the model is naked, but not exposed: the viewer sees not voyeurism but anatomical precision. Yet Knight’s painted self looks away from all nudity. If she broke gender barriers by studying the nude, she did so apologetically.

Throughout Knight’s career, the battle for gender equality is played out in skirmishes with unclear results. There is a display of press cuttings that simultaneously celebrate Knight’s nomination as the first female Royal Academy member and debate the lack of recognition of women artists.

Unfortunately, the exhibition as a whole betrays the ambiguity of such debate. Walls divide the artworks into clear-cut themes: ‘ballet and theatre’, ‘circus’. This overly neat organisation is then juxtaposed with historical events, creating an artificial chronology.

The excessive organisational clarity prevents the exploration of greater, transversal themes. All of Knight’s work seems to be guided by an interest in the marginal and subculture. Although a wall panel acknowledges this interest by mentioning the 1920s fascination with ‘negro culture’, wider questions remain unexplored, and there is no justification or contextualisation for the artist’s ethnographic fascination.

Knight’s diary details her role as a war correspondent at the Nuremberg trials, and is the only biographical offering in the exhibition. The pages reveal her intimate battle of justified loathing and unjustified compassion. Writing without mediation or self-censorship, Knight noted here how she almost smiled to Hess and worried that her drawing might distress the prisoners. She would hardly have repeated such thoughts in public, yet it is through them that one glimpses a fully-fledged personality. A personality of complexity and extreme sensibility— precisely what made most of her portraits so perceptive and profound.

Image: Self Portrait by Dame Laura Knight, 1913
Image Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London. Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA, 2013

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