Monthly Archives: February 2014

Laura Knight and modernism

On Friday I visited Laura Knight Portraits at the Laing, Newcastle. On Monday I watched Ulrich Seidl’s 2007 film, Import/Export. What’s the connection?

Laura Knight was either (depending on what you read as you moved around the exhibition) the first or second woman to become a member of the Royal Academy since the 18th Century. Confusing, but either way, it hardly matters, Knight stuck closely throughout her career to those academy principles of good drawing, careful and balanced composition, painting as an illusion of real space. Working in the wake of the most profound changes in art since the Renaissance, Knight’s paintings show few in any influences of European modernism beyond maybe a feathery impressionism in places and use of strong colour.

Contemporaries of Knight’s, such as Stanley Spencer or the Scottish painter, James Cowie, also produced work that like hers is largely traditional in conception and execution. Spencer’s often rather dull landscapes for instance.  However modernism is present in the work of both painters, whether in the gentle surrealism of Cowie’s Noon or Spencer’s stark and brutal portraits of himself and Patricia Preece, anticipating Lucian Freud’s naked portraits.

Of the paintings on show at the Laing, ‘Self Portrait aka The Model‘ painted in 1913 is the only one, with its areas of loose handling and broad flat planes of strong colour,  that nods to what is happening across the channel in France and Germany. This is the only painting in the show that, it seems to me, makes a break with the creation of three dimensional space within the canvas that virtually all painters, from the Renaissance up until the 19th Century took as a given.

In a series of lectures given in 1971 Michel Foucault credited Manet with making possible all painting that came after impressionism and he did this by abandoning the illusion of three dimensional space within the canvas. Instead, Foucault argued, Manet compressed the space in his paintings and in doing so invented the ‘picture-object’ which made quite plain the viewer, the materiality of the painting, its real existence as pigment on a flat two dimensional surface. Manet, Foucault said, ‘turned upside down… all that was fundamental in western painting since the quattrocento’.

Obviously, Laura Knight, who died in 1970, didn’t have the benefit of Foucault’s insights. However if the Manet’s break with tradition and all that followed had little impact on Knight another agent of modernism, did I think, the cinema. Looking at ‘Ruby Loftus screwing a breech ring‘ and ‘Take Off‘, both large oil paintings commissioned by the War Artist Advisory Committee, what I see is a film still. Each painting has the sense of movement, action and space that the cinema offers and I think clearly influenced Knight. Certainly early photographers and probably early film makers were influenced by old master and academy painting and composition so perhaps there a circuitousness in all this.

Watching Seidl’s Import/Export, the influence here is not the academy but modernism. Seidl’s camera is often static, the actors move back and forth, to and fro, in frame and out of frame, in front of a static blocks of muted colour and shape. The compression of space in paintings that began with Manet is transferred by Seidl to film so that although the film is about the very real struggles the two principle characters face, overcoming the poverty and lack of opportunity in the lives, the film has an aesthetic familiar from Russian Constructivism and later formalist abstract painting. In Seidl’s film it is both a real and an artificial Austria and Ukraine that the characters inhabit.

What’s the connection between Knight and Seidl? None really just a striking contrast (for me anyway) of how painters and film makers respond to influences, both contemporary and past in each of their crafts and how these influences are used in shaping what appears on canvas or on screen.

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15/02/2014 · 9:48 am