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The less ordinary life of the artist Laura Knight | Art

“I.“My opinion is that fine realism is indeed true abstractionism,” wrote British painter Laura Knight in 1954. Her critics complained that she was just copying life, but Knight believed that she transformed the world more than painters. abstract, which seemed to him, ignore their sensuality and specificity.

We can decide for ourselves in the largest exhibition of his work since 1965, curated at MK Gallery in Milton Keynes. What quickly becomes clear is the abundance of Knight’s theme and style. She was a modern painter in many ways: committed to embracing modern life and experience, and to being a modern woman. I wanted to do everything men could do, paint nudes at a time when art students couldn’t. He treated his subjects with seriousness and commitment, but also with enormous sensual energy and a feeling for the pleasures of watching, whether it was the naked women on Cornish beaches, the gaudy clowns in his 1930s circus films, or even the commanders of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. of the 1940s, surrounded by the meticulously crafted paraphernalia of their work lives.

Knight flitted between styles and settings with voracity and enjoyment. Look, I’m an impressionist! a surrealist! a colourist! he yells, while evoking new palettes and brushstrokes. When he wasn’t painting, he was learning acrobatics, while living next to the circus. He was hungry for life and gave him almost 93 years. Towards the end, he wrote that “my inner self keeps saying even today: keep going, keep trying something different.”

Knight was so good, in particular, with the women she worked with, whether it was her portraits of herself as a painter, the ballet dancers, actors and circus performers she loved to watch, or the operatives she painted during WWII. World. She took women’s work seriously, including her own: she was hell-bent on negotiating fees and exhibition space, and she was proud to have been named a lady in 1929 and the first real female scholar in 1936.

Knight knew that women worked from a young age, having grown up in a rather impoverished household in Nottingham with her mother (who taught art to local children), her grandmother, and her great-grandmother (who had once made corsetry for the queen). In 1889, at age 13, she became the youngest student enrolled at the Nottingham School of Art and seems to have instantly fallen in love with 17-year-old Harold Knight, the university’s star student. Harold was proud when her career took off and doesn’t seem to have resented her for overcoming it. Together they felt at home amongst artists in the Yorkshire fishing port of Staithes, the Dutch village of Laren and the Cornish seaside town of Newlyn. So Knight began his more independent journey, always looking for artists to live with, and slept between the troops in both world wars.

Perhaps Knight’s reputation would have been more easily secured if he had committed himself to modernity in both style and theme, like Vanessa Bell or Ben Nicholson. It is not his style, but the vitality and sensuality of his images that are transmitted over the decades: the game of concentration and joy in an expression, the movement of a body in the air or a balloon in the wind. “I paint today,” he announced once. It’s that “today” quality that makes your work worth reviewing.

Knights to Remember – Five Remarkable Works

Ella Ardelty from Laura Knight on the high trapeze. Photographer: © Estate of Dame Laura Knight

Ella Ardelty at the High Trapeze, no date
This was one of Knight’s most successful circus paintings of the 1930s. Ardelty has a particular dignity, so relaxed on the trapeze that she holds one hand in the air. Her muscles are tense with exertion, but there is an element of creative dreaminess to the game that reminds us how much Knight herself values ​​this combination of dreaming and hard work. The gray-toned background dramatizes the blurriness of Ardelty’s mobile existence, but also isolates her and formally pushes her toward abstraction.

A balloon site, Coventry, 1943 (top in photo)
Knight was extremely active in WWII, especially committing himself to painting women war workers, in part to encourage women to join. The bombing balloons were used to force German bomber planes to fly higher and were operated by women beginning in 1942. “No accolades are too high for their steadfastness,” Knight said of these women, whom he portrays in action. coordinated.This is a practical image, but there is a loose painterly luxury in the balloon as it inflates, its folds taut and expansive in ways that seem to resonate with the act of painting for Knight.

Sketch for the Nuremberg trial.
Sketch for the Nuremberg trial. Photograph: Crown Copyright, IWM

The sketch of the Nuremberg trial, 1946
It was Knight’s idea to go to the Nuremberg trial against the high-ranking Nazis in 1946. She was not satisfied with the view from the spectator gallery, so she asked him to sit on a transmission box on the dock. Outside of court, he surveyed the hungry ruin dwellers and celebrated at the hotel (at age 68, he astonished his classmates by doing a backflip on the dance floor). He made men more pitiable and more terrible by making them ordinary. In this sketch, they are seen reading and writing; In the final painting, he would merge this courtroom scene with apocalyptic horror imagery, painting burning buildings seemingly on the verge of subsuming the defendants.

Self Portrait With model, 1913
This is the painting where Knight finds her voice, a defiant image of a woman claiming power as an image maker that is also a wonderfully intimate image of two friends. As a woman painting a nude in a studio, Knight was poking fun at the establishment. The model is Knight’s friend Ella Naper, whose rather scenic pose seems designed to highlight her bodily vitality. There’s something dandy about Knight’s costume: his hat and red jacket. The reds of the costume and the backdrop pick up the skin from Naper’s butt, giving him the feel of a newly undressed woman.

Laura Knight Spring in Cornwall.
Laura Knight Spring in Cornwall. Photographer: Mark Heathcote and Oliver Cowlin / © Tate

Spring in Cornwall, 1914
A year after the self-portrait, Knight turned to his friend Naper again and painted her and her husband in a Cornish spring. Knight lived in Newlyn and was enchanted by the “walls lit with primroses, violets and anemones.” It is a vision of nature that exuberantly opposes both the historical omen of the moment and the prevailing notions of good taste and artistic advancement. Cornwall here becomes an almost provocative extreme view of natural radiance.

Laura Knight: a panoramic view is to MK Gallery, Milton Keynes, Until February 20th. Lara Feigel is the author of Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing (Bloomsbury).

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