Women in Art is the subject of a series of talks and articles I am presenting in 2021 embracing the depiction of women by male artists and women as depicted by women artists. Cornwall Penlee Dame Laura Knight
I thought I’d start the series by having a brief look at the work of the English artist Dame Laura Knight.
Knight’s full bio can be found on Wikipedia. Born in 1877, at the age of 13 Laura Knight attended the Nottingham School of Art where she met her husband Harold Knight and where male and female segregation of tuition and subject matter was as practiced at the time.
The excellent exhibition at Penlee Museum and Gallery Penzance in 2021 brilliantly illustrates Knight’s developing technique and subject matter. In this article we can explore her approach to depicting her female subject matter.
The figures of women in her early work in Straithes North Yorkshire are clearly visible.
However, their identities are hidden. Look how their faces are covered, are bland, are turned away from us. Is this a reflection, like John Constable with his peasants, of her not identifying with them? her fear of becoming too close to them? Or perhaps it’s Knight’s way of depicting their anonymous lowly status, the ‘little woman at home’, non-entities as indeed socially and economically they were so positioned?
In her move to Cornwall in 1907, her approach changed to capturing the exciting light on her figures enjoying more fun and open air. Her female figures have far more identity, are away from harrowing workplaces, have more confidence and self-assurance.
But, in all the works on exhibition in Penzance, almost all the women depicted are looking away from us, they are not engaging with the viewer, our gaze is of them looking elsewhere.
The only exception is her brilliant 1927 portrait of the black woman, Pearl Johnson…
and the gypsy in Gypsy Splendour.
(These works are the subject of my next article on Knight.)
Even her works depicting dancers, the stage performers and audiences all show the female figure looking away from us as though captured unexpectedly, almost like a snapshot, an intrusion into their space and life. Women to be looked at and gazed upon, maybe reflecting Knight’s visceral intuition of male attitudes towards their female counterparts?
Or, perhaps Knight is indicating these women’s independence, their disassociation from the audience’s presence. They are not relying on you the viewer to acknowledge their existence. They are almost divorced from the room in which we stand looking at them. Maybe we could surmise that they are thinking along the lines of ‘if you weren’t there, I’d still be here, absorbed into myself and self-reliant’. ‘I don’t need you to exist’.
I would contend that Knight’s most stunning works are 3 of those she painted on behalf of the War Artists Advisory Committee (WW2), chaired by Kenneth Clark. 300 artists were commissioned of whom 17 were women.
The details and precision are stunning, the characterisations electric, the importance of the work the women were undertaking is hugely evident. But again, her principle subject matters and background female figures are all looking away from us, intent on their work and their reflections of their circumstances.
These are the most powerful images Knight painted. They are again ignoring our gaze, they do not require our presence, they are independent. However, we know they are caught up in the patriarchal society that then and still does exist.
What a debate! Could it be argued that this is Knight’s interpretation of women being employed to ’do their bit’ making enormous and invaluable contributions to the war effort on a par with men, yet we know they’ll be returning to their contemporary domesticity at the end of the war?
Knight is perhaps making a statement here: the challengeable role of women in society, there when required, getting on with it, but looking away as if they feel they’re not up there with men. As though they cannot engage with us as unique individuals and personalities, dare I say 2nd class citizens? Or is she saying that women should be independent and could be independent if the patriarchal society allowed them to be? Who knows? The power of art to open these questions, to get our thoughts going, to think about who we are and where we’re going. Wonderful stuff.
The pictures are there to be enjoyed of course. They are absorbing, they are technically masterful in composition, form, colour, and dynamism. Knight was a true artist.
But in looking deeper, maybe we can discover a more meaningful dialogue, a comment on societal and economic prejudices, roles, and attitudes. Or am I reading too much into this to suit my own agenda? But isn’t that what we all do and isn’t that an invaluable role of art, to invite us to explore our own feelings, identify and confront our attitudes, prejudices, fears and hopes?
NB: all the images used have been drawn down from social media and adapted for this article. Nothing used has any commercial purpose.
Cornwall Penlee Dame Laura Knight