This summer there are two exhibitions of portrait painting at the National Portrait Gallery – the BP Portrait Award 2013 and a long awaited exhibition of the work of Laura Knight. Elected as only the second female artist to enter the Royal Academy, Laura Knight (1877- 1970) in her time was a popular artist. Her painting career began in Cornwall before the First World War where she became part of the artistic community that centred on Lamorna Cove. The artistic life at that time can be glimpsed in the romantic film ‘Summer in February’ where Laura Knight’s character plays a supporting role beside the young painter Alfred Munnings. During her time as a student, women were denied access to nude models. In the Self Portrait of 1913 she shows her command of the genre by depicting herself reflected in a mirror while painting a nude – the bright colours of modernism and the boldness of the brush strokes announcing the arrival of a confident artist.
On moving to London she was attracted by the theatre and like Degas before her paints the ballet dancers and back stage workers. The painting ‘Ballet Dancer and Dressmaker’ shows her skill with the brush, whilst a watercolour gouache and charcoal drawing of the same subject demonstrates that drawing is the cornerstone of her formidable technique. Always interested in exotic subject matter she moved on to painting circus clowns and then gypsies, who could be found at racecourses in their colourful clothes and painted wagons. Working from an aged Rolls Royce, which she used as a makeshift studio, she painted their portraits developing a rapid painting style to suit the situation.
During the Second World War she became an official war artist. “I look back with horror at those war years when I was employed at picturing the making of instruments to kill, but one wants to forget.” A commission by the War Artists Advisory Committee finds her depicting the interior of a Stirling Mark 111 bomber accurately drawn and vigorously painted. Working in factories her most famous picture was of ‘Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring’ 1942, Ruby representing the young women then working in factories producing armaments for the war effort. Laura Knight’s war work culminated in her attending the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial as an official war artist. Her viewing position in a press box limited her ability to construct varied compositions and preventing her from making a great statement but perhaps perhaps she was not the right artist to undertake this particular task. Celebrated in later life she would be called upon to paint celebrities such as George Bernard Shaw and Joan Rhodes ‘The Mighty Mannequin’ a theatrical personality of the day whose act involved tearing telephone book in half and bending iron bars – entertainment being much simpler in those days.
At the same time the National Portrait Gallery is showing its annual BP Portrait competition. This exhibition has been gaining in popularity in recent years and has begun to act as a creditable rival to Tate Modern’s more establishment view of contemporary art. It serves as a demonstration of the representational skills of British painters and those from abroad, but any open competition is only as good as its selectors and in this year’s exhibition there seems to be a reduction in quality. In recent years photorealism has come to dominate the show and as a rational extension of representation in a postmodern world this has given the show its authority. However photorealist painting, as a style that concerns itself with creating the simulation of photographic effects at the expense of revealing the personality of the sitter, reduces the power of the medium. There are also far too many paintings that should have remained as photographs and there is also the inevitable array of vanity, kitsch and humourist portraits that have no place in an exhibition that wants to take itself seriously. It is also odd to award first prize to a painting so heavily indebted to the artist Alice Neel and then second prize to one showing such strong allegiance to Balthus. My own preference was for Owen Normand’s painting ‘The Berliner Room’, the winner of the Young Painters category, which combined a concern for paint with an ability to project the character of the sitter. But the exhibition does show that painting is still a force to be reckoned with and it is nice to think that Laura Knight might have been pleased with Jamie Routley’s ‘Self Portrait’ in a mirror (above), as it reflects her own efforts and shares her concern for fidelity and truthfulness to the medium.
Both shows are on at the National Portrait Gallery until September/October 2013.