Laura Knight Portraits: What it means to be alive

by Cass Art

At first look they appear anachronistic. 1930s ballerinas, Russian dancers in outlandish garb, exotic-looking gypsies, second world war officers delivering telegrams, portraits of the aristocracy and literary figures.

Such diverse and apparently disparate works are of course from the hand of Dame Laura Knight, in what is the first major exhibition of the Nottingham-born impressionist's paintings at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London.

It is here, across this exhibition of 38 vivid paintings, a collage of colour that fizzes with vibrancy and brio, that Knight's works are presented: about women, about war, about dancing, about life.

Her dizzying spread of subjects tell us about her personality: innately curious, wondering all the time about the world. This exhibition, which has been lauded by critics, features paintings that cover the full gamut of Knight's works, from her early days as young painter in Nottingham to the commissioned works she produced towards the end of her life.

Knight, born in Long Eaton in 1877, was a versatile and creative artist: always different. Hers was a rich and interesting life. Born into impoverished circumstances, she joined the Nottingham School of Art at the age of just 13, and through her career achieved a number of firsts, including being the first female member of the Royal Academy and the official artist at the Nuremberg trials.

The painting in this exhibition that perhaps most defines her is Self-Portrait (1913), pictured above. Derided by some critics at the time for being vulgar, it now stands as a masterpiece.

Just look at it: a mass of brilliant, colourful strokes, a statement that women were entitled to paint on the same terms as men.

“In her last years Laura asked me ‘Have I tried too many different media, too many different subjects?’” R John Croft, her great nephew, once said. “I could not give her an answer as she then went on: ‘I do not know, except that my inner self continues to say even today - go on, keep on trying something different.’”

At the start of this blog we speculated that Knight's works look antiquated, but on closer look the paintings across this fascinating exhibition appear very much in the here and now. This is an artist interested in people, some on the fringes of society, an artist curious about what it feels like to be alive.

Laura Knight Portraits runs at the National Portrait Gallery, London, until 13 October. 

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