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Although these two exhibitions must be appreciated independently (and indeed I think, frankly, there would seem to be no advantage in being considered together), there is a little fun to be had in comparing and contrasting these two 20th century painters from such different backgrounds.
L S Lowry (born in 1887) was in full time employment in Manchester until the age of 65, having attended the Municipal College of Art in that city as a youngster (although he claimed to be self-taught). Since he had little opportunity for travel it is lucky he believed strongly that as an artist one should ‘paint the place you know’. Since Lowry is commonly perceived as depicting the urban working class and its environment, the main shock on seeing these paintings in such close proximity to Knight’s work is how subdued a palette he uses compared to hers!
Laura Knight was born in 1877 and trained at Nottingham Art School from the age of 13. She too started by painting what she knew; in her case the North Yorkshire coast. However, an early visit to the Nottingham Goose Fair seems to have awakened in her a lifelong love of carnival and theatre, and a lot of the work is incredibly colourful.
The Lowry shows over 130 works spanning 50 years of her career, from circa 1911 to 1962. A large part of this exhibition is given over to work done from 1919 and throughout the 20s, as well as drawings and paintings of the British tours of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Knight was apparently given the freedom to sketch dancers backstage, and made the most of her friendship with the ballerinas of the time, Lydia Lopokova and Anna Pavlova, to produce some vibrant work.
Her paintings from this period are very evocative for me. Although well before my time, the dancers pictured here were the ones I learned about in my childhood, revered in the ballet books I was reading whilst taking lessons as a small child in the sixties with Leo Kersley, who was, I am reliably informed, Stanislaus Idzikovsky’s favourite London pupil once upon a time when Knight was busy painting!
The brightness of a lot of these paintings counterpoints for me the sadness of the dancer. The unflinching dedication to a relentless regime becomes a painful battle as time takes its toll. The dancer’s dedication passes into ashes and yet leaves behind so much as well, thanks in some part to these paintings.
Ballet dancers work both with and against ‘nature’ to make the beauty of line and form which inevitably dies. The pain of that falling away seems instilled in a lot of the work here, beneath the bright lights and meretricious costumes.
I am lucky enough to still have my darling ballet teacher as a friend, and I mentioned this exhibition to him. Leo Kersley said he had not seen it but knew Knight and her work. He was never fond of it, since she was painting at a time when so many other artists were doing paintings of dancers that seemed to have movement, and Knight’s work seemed wooden in comparison. Particularly striking from that period for Kersley was the work of Carlo Carra, an artist who investigated the ideas of representing motion, as many did, and subsequently became a cubist. Enrico Cecchetti, who taught Idzikovski, who in turn taught Leo Kersley, is quoted here as seizing upon Knight’s sketches to show pupils evidence of their errors, a compliment to the artist whose speed he praised as ‘comme la photographie!’ (However, this quote in the catalogue is Knight herself recounting!)
A watercolour in the exhibition – ‘The Dancing Class’ – may have been the one exhibited in 1935, but was obviously taken from these sketches made earlier. Cecchetti set up a school in London and Knight has Conté crayon on paper and a lithograph of his classes from 1920 and 1924, respectively. He returned to La Scala Milan in 1924 and subsequently died there, teaching class, in 1928.
This is, I realise, an extremely personal reaction to and discussion of Knight’s work. I feel sure the exhibition will move all those who have been involved in ballet in the 20th century, and I hope, stimulate those who haven’t a direct interest, at the very least to compare and contrast with other painters of her era, in the painting of dancers.
Joanna Bacon © 2008
Originally published on R&V 23-06-08
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