Monday, 26 September 2016

Winifred Knights at Dulwich Picture Gallery

I went to see the exhibition of paintings by Winifred Knights at the Dulwich Picture Gallery a few weeks ago, in it's last week so it's now closed. Winifred's is not a name I've come across before but she seems to have been highly thought of during her life-time, winning prestigious prizes and commissions. The exhibition didn't give me much of an insight into her life or motivations but it showed me a good selection of her works, including preparatory sketches for the main works.

I'll only pick out a few of the paintings that I think most represent her work and, oddly enough, they're all religious. Some of her early paintings were about working class themes, with strikers outside a factory or hordes of people streaming out factory gates - all good Methodist stock no doubt. But it's more classical themes she gravitated to, such as 'The Marriage at Cana'.

The captions tell us that she greatly admired the early Italian Renaissance painters and that's quite evident in the composition of this painting, everything clearly delineated, the light colour palette, everything calm and in good order, even hiding herself behind a tree sketching. The woman bending over at front-right of the painting will be bending over forever since there's little hint at movement in the painting. We see the guests and the marriage feast (each with slices of pink melon for some reason) and everyone turned toward the right to see what is going on. We see the studied perspective of the straight lines and the trees gradually vanishing away into the forest, all very early Renaissance as painters moved away from the Gothic styles and methods of painting. The paint on the canvas is also terribly light so you can see the texture of the canvas underneath.

Another painting that caught my eye was 'The Santissima Trinita', painted over several years in the late 1920s after Winifred and her lover had joined the pilgrimage in northern Italy, with some pilgrims sleeping in a field of the cutest haystacks ever (can haystacks be cute?) and there we have Winifred again, to the left under the open umbrella, while other pilgrims are washing in the river. Just like 'The Marriage', it uses a light palette and is very still, you can almost feel the heat making the weary pilgrims weary and want to doze off. It's rather stylised and, in a sense, is almost two paintings, the modern British post-Slade school of the bottom half of the painting while the background landscape could be in from a Piero Della Francesca painting.

The painting that shrieked 'early Renaissance' at me was 'Scenes From The Life Of Saint Martin of Tours' - as soon as I saw it across the room the colours immediately made think of small Raphael paintings using those reds and blues. The painting includes three scenes from St Martin's life: when he gave a beggar his cloak, when he cured a baby and, finally, when he had a vision of Christ. It's bright with Mediterranean sun and the colours are brilliant and shine across the room.

Interestingly, I've just noticed that the above three paintings are in rough chronological order, which is a coincidence on my part, but perhaps also serve to show how she sought her own way into her art, from draftsmanship, composition to colour and greater expressiveness? Maybe.

The painting we were supposed to go 'wow' at was 'The Deluge' from 1920, a big painting with lots of preparatory sketches hung beside it. I wasn't all that keen, to be honest. The colours are drab, the poses fixed and lack movement, perhaps a result of and demonstrating post-war ennui? I don't know, but it didn't move me or make me wonder in the way the other paintings did.

The exhibition is now closed. It was worth going to see the works of this seemingly 'lost' painter of the first half of the 20th Century. I'd be interested in seeing more of her works but I'm not sure that's likely to happen any time soon. Or maybe this exhibition will stimulate renewed interest in Winifred?

No comments: