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“IIn my opinion, beautiful realism is indeed true abstractionism, ”wrote the British painter Laura Knight in 1954. Her critics complained that she was only copying life, but Knight believed that she was transforming the world more than abstract painters, who seemed to him to ignore its sensuality and its specificity.

We can decide for ourselves at the biggest exhibition of his work since 1965, held at the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes. What quickly becomes clear is the richness of Knight’s subject matter and style. She was a modern painter in many ways: committed to embracing modern life and experience, and being a modern woman. She wanted to do whatever men could do, paint nudes at a time when female art students weren’t allowed to do it. She treated her subjects with seriousness and commitment, but also with enormous sensual energy and a taste for the pleasure of watching, whether they were the naked women on the beaches of Cornwall, the screaming clowns in her circus images. 1930s, or even commanders of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. 1940s, surrounded by the meticulously rendered paraphernalia of their professional lives.

Knight wavered between styles and settings with voracity and pleasure. Look, I’m an impressionist! a surrealist! a colorist! she cries, conjuring up new palettes and new brushstrokes. When she was not painting, she learned acrobatics, while living alongside the circus. She was hungry for life and she was almost 93 years old. Towards the end, she wrote that “my inner self keeps saying even today – keep going, keep trying something different”.

Knight was so good, in particular, about working women, whether it was her portraits of herself as a painter, the ballet dancers, actors and circus performers she loved to observe. , or agents she painted during WWII. She took women’s work, including her own, seriously: she was determined to negotiate fees and exhibition space, and was proud to have become a lady in 1929 and the first female Royal Academician in 1936.

Knight knew women worked from a young age, having grown up in a pretty impoverished house in Nottingham with his mother (who taught art to local children), grandmother and great-grandmother (who once had made corsetry for the queen). In 1889, aged 13, she became the youngest pupil to ever enroll at the Nottingham School of Art and appears to have instantly fallen in love with the 17-year-old Harold Knight, the university’s star student. Harold was proud when his career took off and didn’t seem to blame him for passing it. Together they felt at home among the performers of the Yorkshire Staithes fishing port, the Dutch village of Laren and the Cornish seaside town of Newlyn. Then Knight began her travels more independently, always on the lookout for performers she could live with and lying among the troops of both World Wars.

Perhaps Knight’s reputation would have been more easily secured if she had engaged in modernity in style as well as subjects, like Vanessa Bell or Ben Nicholson. It is not his style but the vitality and sensuality of his images that span the decades: the play of concentration and cheerfulness in an expression, the movement of a body in the air, or a barrage ball in the wind . “I paint today,” she once announced. It is this “modern” quality that makes her work deserves to be revisited.

Knights to remember – five remarkable works

The Less Ordinary Life of Artist Laura Knight |  Art
Laura Knight’s Ella Ardelty on the top trapeze. Photograph: © Estate of Dame Laura Knight

Ella Ardelty on the top trapeze, undated
This was one of Knight’s most successful circus paintings of the 1930s. There is a special dignity in Ardelty, so relaxed on the trapeze that she holds one hand in the air. Her muscles are tight with the effort, but there is an element of creative daydreaming involved that reminds us how much Knight herself appreciates this combination of dreaming and hard work. The gray-toned background dramatizes the vagueness of Ardelty’s mobile existence but also isolates it, and formally pushes towards abstraction.

A balloon site, Coventry, 1943 (photo above)
Knight was extremely active during World War II, primarily engaging in painting female war workers, in part to encourage women to join. Barrage balloons were used to force German bombers to fly higher and were operated by women from 1942. “No praise is too high for their tenacity,” Knight said of these women, which it describes in a coordinated action. It’s a practical image, but there is a pictorial sumptuousness that stands out in the balloon as it inflates, its folds both strained and expansive in a way that seems to resonate with the act of painting for Knight.

The Less Ordinary Life of Artist Laura Knight |  Art
Sketch for the Nuremberg trials. Photograph: Crown Copyright, IWM

The sketch of the Nuremberg trials, 1946
It was Knight’s idea to attend the Nuremberg Trials of the High Nazis in 1946. She was not satisfied with the view from the spectator gallery, so she asked him to sit in a broadcasting booth. above the quay. Off the court, she walked through the hungry inhabitants of the ruins and partied in the hotel (68 years old, she amazed her companions by doing a backflip on the dancefloor). She made men both more pitiful and more terrible by making them ordinary. In this sketch, we see them reading and writing; in the final painting, she would merge that courtroom scene with images of apocalyptic horror, painting burning buildings seemingly poised to subsume the defendants.

Self-portrait With model, 1913
This is the painting where Knight finds her voice, a provocative image of a woman claiming power as an image maker that is also a wonderfully intimate image of two friends. As a woman painting a nude in a studio, Knight flouted the establishment. The babysitter is Knight’s friend Ella Naper, whose rather theatrical pose seems designed to showcase her bodily vitality. There is something dandy about Knight’s costume – his trilby hat and red jacket. The reds of the costume and the backdrop stick to the skin of Naper’s buttocks, making her feel like a recently stripped woman.

The Less Ordinary Life of Artist Laura Knight |  Art
Laura Knight’s Spring in Cornwall. Photograph: Mark Heathcote and Oliver Cowlin / © Tate

Spring in Cornwall, 1914
A year after the self-portrait, Knight turned to his friend Naper again, painting her with her husband in a Cornish spring. Knight lived in Newlyn and was enchanted by the “walls all lit up with primroses, violets and anenomas.” It is a vision of nature that exuberantly opposes both the historical forebodings of the moment and the dominant notions of good taste and artistic progress. Cornwall here becomes an extreme, almost provocative vision of natural glow.

Laura Knight: A panoramic view is at the MK Gallery, Milton Keynes, until February 20. Lara Feigel is the author of Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing (Bloomsbury).