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Review: The Second World War as Seen Through the Laura Knight Portraits

Commentary, 3 September 2013
Art, Culture and Literature, History
A major exhibition features more than forty of Laura Knight's portraits and sketches including several which confirm her as an important commentator on the 1939-45 war.

A major exhibition features more than forty of Laura Knight's portraits and sketches including several which confirm her as an important commentator on the 1939-45 war.   

11 July - 13th October 2013, National Portrait Gallery,  London

Review by Dr John Mackinlay

Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring painting by Laura Knight
Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-ring by Dame Laura Knight, 1943 Imperial War Museum, London © IWM (LD 5928)

Although war art is not a uniquely British phenomenon, after an intensely violent century it became a topic on which mainstream British artists had much to say.  In the British case, the mobilisation of an entire population also involved artists and writers who, prior to being thrust into uniform, had been at the leading edge of their respective disciplines.  The practical consequence of this was that a huge subterranean space beneath the Imperial War Museum was swiftly filled with more than 7,000 works, generated by the wars of the twentieth century. It must be the world's largest and most important collection of war art, the product of several generations of artists including major British painters and sculptors such as Nash, Nevison, Sergeant, Spencer, Bomberg, Burra, Epstein, Moore - who were variously part of our post-modernist movement.  This glittering assembly from the first half of the twentieth century obviously included Laura Knight.  By 1929, Knight was already a highly regarded British painter, a Dame of the British Empire, a full member of the Royal Academy and able to sell everything she touched.  

The Dock, Nuremberg - Paining by Laura KnightThe current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery brings together her peacetime oeuvre with the best of her 1939-45 paintings, made after she had been enlisted by Kenneth Clarke as a war artist.  In stark contrast to the current trend for exhaustive, marathon-scale exhibitions, curator Rosie Broadley's selection is succinct and occupies just seven small rooms, which span Knight's career from the early years in Cornwall as part of the Newlyn school to the last portraits made shortly before she died. The narrative of her interests shifts from room to room - Cornwall, the theatre,  ballet, the circus, gypsies, a hospital in Baltimore and finally to the 1939-45 war. Knight's subjects are mainly women, handsome wholesome creatures painted with energy, warm colours and exuding goodness. Although commercially successful and aesthetically popular, Knight's pasteurised models also became a target for criticism. Her glacially staring ballerinas and nurses owed more to Degas than the confrontational frankness of 1930's modernism and critics sneered at Laura Knight's unwillingness to engage the dark side of humanity and the controversial techniques of modernism.

However, this criticism founders at the War room. Most of Knight's subjects are still nevertheless healthy looking women, but here there also men - some of them heroic figures in flying suits and some of them defeated Nazis listening to evidence that will in many cases hang them.  In the War room, her weakest picture is Take Off: Interior of Bomber Aircraft, 1943.  Although RAF historians will delight in its detail, for me this is more a battle painting than war art. The feeling of contrivance is overwhelming, the blandness of the perfectly painted flying suits and the calmness of the body language fail to convey the sense of an approaching take off - the awful confrontation over the target area and the high chance of death and failure to return. The contemporary Mildenhall sketch book on display close by is so much more immediate, showing pencil drawings of the crews briefing, pale-faced young men with unfastened flying jackets bent over tables. Further on in the War room, our RUSI-owned picture of Corporal Elspeth and Sergeant Helen is as splendid as ever and the more noticeable for its prominent position.  Sergeant Turner's unconcealed boredom is wonderfully solid and the scuffed rim of the corporal's helmet, doubtless from being dragged off its peg at every stand to, is well observed. (We need to see them in a more public space when they get back!).  Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring, 1942 is also in this room. Much has been written about this justly celebrated picture, so take the opportunity to study it while it is in the public domain. According to her photograph on the front of the Daily Mirror (1 May 1943), Ruby really was as good looking as Knight made her out to be.  Today, her unprotected face and naked fingers so close to the spinning steel lathe surrounded by shards of metal would send the health and safety gestapo reaching for their whistles.

But this engaging room is nevertheless dominated by the scale and the uncharacteristically sombre colours of The Nuremberg Trial, 1946.  It seems as if Knight had at last confronted the darker side of humanity. With great determination she insisted on being accredited at Nuremberg, where she sat rather awkwardly looking down onto the dock containing the surviving Nazi leaders.  The value of her painting and the stack of notes and sketches made from above is the detailed record of the court environment. Her tremendous draftsmanship of the human body, demonstrated elsewhere in the exhibition, is now fully deployed, because it is the twisted anxious body language rather than the faces of the accused, which powerfully conveys their predicament. It is worth finding the key to the painting and examining the demeanour of each defendant, most of them familiar names, now dressed in sagging civilian suits and drab undecorated uniforms. Day after day she studied them and the result is more powerful and informing than a sheaf of contemporary photos.

Bottom line: for the £6.30, Laura Knights Portraits are definitely worth the short walk up Whitehall from the doors of the RUSI.

John Mackinlay is a member of RUSI.

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