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The Crack Magazine


Challenging Convention at The Laing

The Laing Art Gallery (open Monday – Saturday.)

From the privileged enclaves of Bloomsbury to the artists’ colony at Newlyn, not to mention art schools provincial and metropolitan, studios in Paris and Royal Academy exhibitions in London, the four female artists here were all born in the 19th century but worked through a period of radically changing attitudes in British painting. Their work can be seen as a celebration of the way art institutions finally opened up to offer training, exhibition opportunities and professional status to women artists, with Dame Laura Knight elected to full membership of the Royal Academy in 1936. The other three, Dod Procter, Vanessa Bell and Gwen John, all shared with her the issue of developing personal styles that negotiated the influence of Impressionism and addressed the conflict between traditional representation and radical Modernism.

Bell stepped further along the Modernist route than the others, with raw, sometimes harshly coloured, loosely painted figures and landscapes that flirted with the confrontational. By contrast, John retreated into an interiorised art of low-key subtlety and deliberate restraint that has only more recently found full recognition. Knight’s was a dazzling success story, with the atmospheric handling of her Newlyn works developing into the theatre/circus/gypsy subjects that delivered an acceptable suggestion of the Bohemian without challenging aesthetic conventions. Her energetic, accomplished skill in original compositional arrangement stood her in good stead when she received commissions as an official war artist – no amount of conventional artistic training could have prepared her for the job of depicting a team of uniformed woman wrangling a barrage balloon. Procter is perhaps the revelation of the show, with a distinctive cool, pearly tonality and a sense of elegant design rooted in the Art Deco mode.

Don’t miss the second exhibition tucked away in the Watercolour gallery, which brings together an altogether wider range of 20th century works on paper, from intricate prints and watercolour studies to abstract collages and designs for murals. The vibrant little woodcut of a glaring blue demon by Marion Wallace-Dunlop (an ardent and active Suffragette) was the work I most wanted to slip into my handbag, but for a nifty title there’s no beating Evelyn Dunbar’s oil sketch “Milking Practice with Artificial Udders” of 1940.

Standard admission to “Challenging Convention” costs £10.

Further info and a short video can be found here:https://laingartgallery.org.uk/whats-on/challenging-convention 

“Women Only Works on Paper” is free – ask at reception to be shown the way in.