Bold, strident and easy to admire, the selection of work by Laura Knight which is currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery provides a welcome glimpse into the artist’s character as well as the times she lived in. It is refreshing to wander through the display and become acquainted with a talent who drew and painted for the joy of it. Knight made a solid career from her work but it’s evident that she lived for the act of putting colour and mark on canvas and creating something that only a human can. Although critics might suggest that her success is a product of Knight’s situation, they cannot argue with the loveliness of her work.
The exhibition is small, the NPG makes most of its money from the crowd pleasers like Lucian Freud and the majority of the temporary gallery space is currently taken up by the dated BP Portrait Prize. However there is room for a whirlwind tour of the different stages in Knight’s oeuvre and the different groups of people she painted. Starting out with family, friends and acquaintances she developed her observational portraits whilst spending time in the states. There are some exquisite pastel drawings of black patients at the Johns Hoskins Hospital in Maryland where Knight spent some time getting to know some of the nurses. The nature of the material means these are infused with an immediacy which isn’t achievable through paint.
Knight was obviously someone who gained peoples trust with ease. She was invited into the private worlds of groups of people who formed their own subcultures at that time. In the NPG show are a section of warm portraits she painted of both the traveller and circus communities. Far from being twee or resembling caricatures these works show a real connection and intuitive understanding of the subjects. Perhaps more difficult for the artist to capture are the military men and women who were part of the British war effort in the 1940s. Knight was invited to paint official works and some of the sitters appear thoroughly unimpressed at being captured on canvas whilst in the midst of their important duties.
The most powerful works in this exhibition were, quite understandably, the sketches and paintings revealing the Nuremburg Trials following the war. Knight was one of the artists who travelled out to Germany to bear witness to and record this life-altering event. A simple charcoal and wash drawing from a trial date in 1946 is powerful in capturing the banality of the greatest war trial in modern history. Some of the men sit with their heads bowed, hands covering shamed faces, but many sit comfortably with legs crossed and heads held high. The image of civility, they resemble vaguely attentive lecture goers. The accompanying painting elevates the tension and brings the true horror of WW2 to life, but for these men I felt like the drawing was more honest. Knight kept a diary of the proceedings and a chilling little sketch of Hermann Göring from this is also on display.
The last room is just luminous. Suzie and the Washbasin painted in Cornwall in 1929 aches to be gazed at and is technically accomplished, as is a later study of Joan Rhodes from 1955. The curator obviously designed this section as the icing on the cake; many of the postcard images for the show are to be found within this space. It’s the perfect end to a whistle stop tour of this great female artist’s work, a real one of a kind talent.
On display until 13th October 2013.