Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Laura Knight

Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring
Picture: Public Catalogue Foundation
My enjoyment of this lovely show was out of proportion to its quality. Laura Knight is a pleasant but not great artist. Some of the pictures are rather bad. So why did I enjoy the show so much? I liked its modesty, a small scale display of a variety of works. I liked the surprise of discovering an artist of whom I was only dimly aware. And I really liked some of the pictures. The World War II propaganda pictures are much better than I expected, some of the more experimental early pictures are striking and she was a good portraitist. She is said to be relatively neglected because she eschewed modernism and fell out of tune with the times, but she flirted with impressionism and tried out different styles and techniques. Laura Knight will stand the test of time better than many second rate modernists whose techniques were more radical but whose pictures were less good.

Her most innovative picture was of the Nuremberg Trial, but I don't think it works. I didn't care much for the Gypsy paintings, and the portrait of George Bernard Shaw is dreadful, but we can grant her some off-days. Knight was at her best as a more conventional portraitist. I don't mean to damn with faint praise when I say she was a technically competent artist, because there is much to enjoy in her technical competence. I've noticed that almost all the reviews have concentrated on her life rather than her art. She wrote two volumes of autobiography that I look forward to reading, and there's a new biography coming out soon.  It's hard to write about the good later portraits because their virtues are rather conventional - but do go along and enjoy them on their own terms. 

I'm quite tired of the endless round of predictable shows of great artists (Titian, Vermeer, Rembrandt ... again and again and again). They rarely show us anything new - in fact you can rarely see anything at all through the crowds. Small exhibitions of less familiar and less great artists can be much more rewarding - pleasing in their own right, and giving a deeper appreciation of the greatest artists by enriching our understanding of their context. This is one of the most enjoyable exhibitions I've been to in a long time. Congratulations to the NPG for doing it so well.

My only real disappointment was the catalogue, an outrageous £25 for a flimsy brochure. I had to have it because I'm an incorrigible bibliophile and I wanted a permanent record of pictures that were new to me. It's fine as far as it goes and the pictures are good, but the introduction comes to about eight pages of text padded out with a supplementary timeline, and the catalogue entries are rarely more than a paragraph. The bibliography (sorry, 'further reading' - they're trying to be accessible) looks excellent and I'm going to follow up my new interest in Laura Knight, but I would have hoped that those sources together with the surfeit of acknowledgments could have been a basis for a more substantive catalogue. The material here would better be presented in a cheaper handbook.

The exhibition is well displayed with good wall text and pictures that show a range of style, technique and quality. The gripe about the catalogue aside, this is a splendid show. 

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