Ask Morgana 074: Dame Laura Knight

'Barbara'

‘Barbara’

'Ballet dancer and dressmaker'

‘Ballet dancer and dressmaker’

I am intrigued by the paintings above. One is clearly a study for the other, and they illustrate the artist’s capacity for taking pains over her work.They also illustrate a calm, natural sensuality, which is one of the qualities I have been looking for in this sequence.

Dame Laura Knight DBE RA RWS (1877-1970) was one of the most celebrated and respected artists of the 20c in the UK. Her style embraced realism and English impressionism. For subjects she favoured performers – ballet, theatre, circus – but she is probably most famous as an official War Artist of World War II. Her painting of the Nuremberg War Trials, where the further wall of the courtroom dissolves into the devastated landscape of a burning and shattered Europe, is one of the century’s acknowledged masterpieces. She was made a member of the Royal Academy in 1936, becoming its first female member since its foundation.

Yet her early paintings depicting women dressing, undressing, or nude, were denounced by art critics for their ‘vulgarity’. I don’t find anything ‘vulgar’ about the three paintings shown below. There is a studiedness to ‘The Bather’ and to the picture of the two young women with upraised glances. As for the largest sample – ‘A Theatre Dressing Room’ – yes, there is a frankness about it. The woman caught in a moment (yes, that again!), perhaps calling out to someone beyond the door, is totally careless about her bare breasts. Semi-nudity here in the dressing room is commonplace to her. Perhaps it is that which makes it erotic, because although commonplace it is not public, and we onlookers have the guilty thrill of voyeurism, guilty because it battles with our appreciation of the artist’s skill!

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The Bather

‘The Bather’

 

'A Theatre Dressing Room'

‘A Theatre Dressing Room’

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Images reproduced under ‘fair use’ provisions.

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