Realism doesn’t have to mean a simple approach to painting. This show of portraits by the early twentieth-century British artist Laura Knight may be small – and steadfastly rooted in reality. But it tells a big, complex, emotional story.
Early work, like the stunning Technicolor impressionist frenzy of ‘Rose and Gold’ (1914), shows Knight experimenting with techniques – unsure of her footing but already a determined portraitist. She went on to capture scenes of war, itinerant Gypsy communities and segregation in American hospitals. Her portraits of Gypsies are rough and quick but affectingly dark, full of untold stories and craggy, worn faces.
It’s Knight’s work from the 1920s that packs the strongest aesthetic punch. Her stylised portraits of ballet dancers and the stark, simple art deco depiction of Ethel Bartlett reveal Knight’s ability to capture subtle and unfussy beauty as powerfully as her more celebrated contemporaries – like William Orpen. It’s not all gold. Knight's later depiction of the Nuremberg Trials, in which the courtroom blends into a war-torn landscape, sees her dropping her customary realism to crude and disappointing effect.
With the outbreak of war, Knight was commissioned to paint scenes of British soldiers and munitions workers. The style here is smooth and suitably utilitarian, with bold, dramatic lighting. But there’s something more than concentration on the faces of these workers. Whether it’s determination and resilience or a quiet sadness is hard to tell but these aren’t simple pieces of propaganda. They’re far more enigmatic, painting a complex and touching picture of wartime Britain. They make for a beautiful snapshot of history, with strength nuanced by a subtle wash of melancholy.