Aug 2013 Journal
Art Notes (review)
Years before Photo-Realism, the rapt intensity in Dame Laura Knight’s portraits of war-workers and military personnel has a rare immediacy. Her group portraits of women members of the auxiliary air force are part of the National Portrait Gallery’s first major exhibition of Knight’s work (until 13 October). Some subjects, like the portrait of Ruby Loftus in green hairnet and blue overalls screwing a breech ring, have gained immortality through her art. There are airmen preparing for a sortie, their faces a study in concentration. Undoubtedly these unusually honest portrayals are a social documentary of the British at war.
But Knight, one of the leading artists of the 20th century, departs slightly from Realism in her large courtroom painting of The Nuremberg Trial, which she covered in her late sixties as a war correspondent. While the defendants, including Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, Albert Speer and their lawyers, are all clearly depicted, there is a surreal war image of a city burning in the background, a reminder that this is no ordinary trial.
Aged 13, Knight was the youngest student at the Nottingham School of Art. With her artist husband Harold Knight, she moved in the early part of the 20th century to an art colony in Cornwall, where she painted landscapes in an Impressionist style. Her most famous painting from this period is a self-portrait, in which Knight, in red coat and black hat, appears with her artist model Ella Naper. It is a landmark of the exhibition in that both she and her model (also mirrored) are shown only in back view, the artist appearing as a voyeur.
In the 1920s Knight famously painted actors and dancers backstage at the Ballets Russes, gypsies and circus performers. Her dancers contrast strongly with Degas’s Impressionist vision, though one, with long red hair, recalls Vermeer. A rugged-faced gypsy who appears to be wearing everything she possesses stares out at us as if there’s nothing in life she hasn’t lived.
Although very much in the tradition of Realist painting, Knight ventures further, catching a sudden change of mood or expression in her sitter. Typical is her 1926 profile of the pianist Ethel Barlett, caught in mid-conversation, lips pursed, one hand grasping the other.
I was particularly struck by her 1914 portrait Rose and Gold, a strikingly pretty girl with a halo of shimmering red gold hair. Tragically the beautiful model was murdered by her jealous lover soon after.
And now for something really different. Looking In: Photographic Portraits by Maud Sulter and Chan-Hyo Bae at the Ben Uri is the Gallery’s take on migrant artists from other communities. Ben Uri Chairman David Glasser refutes the concept of Jewish art and this show examines other immigrants equally seeking identity in an adopted homeland. The young, sadly late artist Maud Sulter examines her Ghanaian-Scottish roots in historical costume portraits on the theme of the Greek Muses. But, rejecting the female passivity which she finds implicit in classic Western imagery, her Muses are powerful and assertive. Chan-Hyo Bae’s work is entirely self-portraiture. His severe, whitened face under huge wigs or hats is a lavish, though ultimately self-indulgent, blend of Tudor courtliness and Japanese ritual.