Arts review: Laura Knight Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London

3.00

 

'Modern' is not a word you automatically associate with Dame Laura Knight, but her self-portrait is just that, in some ways at least. Note I say "modern" and not "avant garde": the picture dates from 1913, the year Picasso painted Guitar and Duchamp made his wheel-stool, Roue de Bicyclette.

Knight is having no truck with that nonsense. She has clearly been to see Roger Fry's Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition, but just as clearly been picky about what she found there. A little light Fauvism, yes. Cézanne and Cubism, no. But it is not her self-portrait's style that makes it “modern”, it is its composition.

The picture's vanishing point, oddly, lies on the fold of a screen, drawing our eyes back to nothing very much. It is what happens to either side of that fold that grabs our attention. To the left, is Knight herself, her head in full profile like a queen on a coin. To the right, on the same level, is a bottom - rather a pink bottom, it has to be said, as though freshly slapped. This belongs to Knight's friend the enamellist, Ella Naper, model and neighbour at Lamorna Cornwall.

The two women had collaborated on a series of ballet works, and here they collaborate again, acting out a drama from which we are pictorially excluded. There are two faces in the portrait and yet we only see half of one of them, and that expressionless. Neither woman looks at the other, both are shown back view. At the composition's heart is a blank.

It is a charming picture, in large part because it doesn't set out to charm. You can look at it if you like, but it's up to you. That is not how things are meant to be in art made by women. The critic John Berger summed it up when he wrote that men in paintings act, women appear: “Men look at women,” Berger said. “Women watch themselves being looked at.” This was particularly so if they had no clothes on. In a reversal of natural order, neither Knight nor Naper gives a toss whether you look at them, dressed or nude. They don't even know you exist.

In its reasonable, English way, the work is a manifesto painting. In 1936, Knight would become the first woman Royal Academician since Angelica Kauffman. The seeds of that ambition are there in her self-portrait, but so, maybe, is the problem with her art. She can be a great painter, but only on her own terms.

The loveliest images in this show - and there are a number - are the ones Knight made off her own bat. The cheesiest - and there are a number of those as well - are works she made on commission. Notable in the first group are the pictures the soon-to-be Dame Laura painted in Baltimore in 1927. While her husband, Harold Knight, made portraits of the surgeons at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Laura Knight set up her easel in its racially segregated maternity ward. If her description of the women there as “darkies” rings unhappily in modern ears - she was born in 1877, after all - there is no questioning the empathy she felt for them.

Pearl Johnson, in watercolour and pastel, is in part an exercise in the effects of light on dark skin, but also a study in trust. Implicit in the power of Johnson's gaze is the knowledge that it is directed at Knight, not at us. The same is true of Knight's paintings of gypsy women at Epsom, likewise made quickly, en plein air and in watery oils that feel informal and intimate.

By way of absolute contrast is the best-known image in the National Portrait Gallery's show (and perhaps Knight's most famous painting overall), Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring. You'd have thought that its subject - a woman doing a man's job - would have been right up Knight's street. Loftus was an ordnance mechanic, her portrait commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee to encourage other women into munitions work. The Soviet Union had Alexey Stakhanov and we had Ruby Loftus, a hair-netted heroine shown in a style midway between Socialist Realism and the Saturday Evening Post.

And her portrait is dreadful. Compared with the work of Knight's most obvious competitor, Norman Rockwell, its composition is clumsy and brushwork inept. Ruby Loftus is a skill-less depiction of skill, the rough stippling of its left shoulder horribly at odds with the Ingres-like burnish of its machine tools, Loftus's full-profile depiction is a sad reprise of Knight's self-portrait of 30 years before. Perhaps Dame Laura mistrusted propaganda, or perhaps she didn't like being told what to do by the WAAC's male director, Kenneth Clark. Either way, the outcome is woeful.

National Portrait Gallery; to 13 Oct

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week