Anna Tietze unpacks Laura Knight’s Lopokova in her Dressing-room in the October edition of Masterpiece of the Month
About Masterpiece of the Month
Reflecting on the 150th anniversary exhibition of Iziko’s Art Collections, which will open on 27 October this year, distinguished UCT art historian Anna Tietze is presenting an essay each month shining some light on an artwork of her choice from the gallery’s historical collection. Anna Tietze is the author of A History of the Iziko South African National Gallery: Reflections on Art and National Identity (UCT Press, 2017).
This work was one of the first of many gifts to the gallery from collector and benefactor Alfred de Pass (1861-1952). Although born in Cape Town, de Pass had spent most of his adult life in Britain and had already presented a number of works of art to British galleries when he returned to his birthplace in 1926. Once back in the Cape, he became aware of the difficulties the South African Gallery was experiencing, without a building of its own1 and with insufficient funds to build up a decent collection. Immediately, he pledged to support the struggling institution, by donating works from his own collection or by buying specially for it. The following year, the first of de Pass’ gifts arrived at the gallery; they included this work by Laura Knight.
Analysis of the work
Laura Knight (1877-1970) triumphed against an exceptionally difficult early life to become, in adulthood, one of Britain’s leading artists and was only the second female artist in history to be awarded a full membership of London’s prestigious Royal Academy in 1936. She married fellow artist Harold Knight in 1903 and soon after their marriage, the couple moved to Cornwall in the south-west of England where they became leading members of the Newlyn school, a community of artists famed for their scenes of informal outdoor life in the style of French Impressionism.
While most of the French Impressionists had worked in the field of outdoor or plein air painting, one of their group, Degas, had favoured interior studies of urban workers and entertainers instead, a particular interest being the world of the Paris ballet. Knight would have been welI aware of Degas’ work and it was fortuitous for her that Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes visited London as she was searching for new directions after her initial phase of plein air painting. From 1911, and particularly after 1919 when she moved to London, she became friends with the leading members of this avant-garde ballet group and obtained permission to document life backstage. This work is the result of one such study.
The painting features the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova, who was to settle in Britain, marrying the economist Maynard Keynes. It probably dates from 1919. The dancer herself is seated in an armchair in the foreground, dressed only in undergarments and wearing slippers and a soft, fur-trimmed hat. She looks to her seamstress behind who is making adjustments to a tutu. Another stiff skirt in some silky material can be glimpsed in the background, while ballet pumps lie cast off near Lopokova’s feet. Everything takes place in a small corner of the dressing room.
It is entirely in the spirit of Degas’ studies of dancers that Laura Knight’s Lopokova is not the subject of a celebratory portrait but a faceless figure turned away from us and pictured in an off-duty moment. For both artists, what the theme of ballet offered was not so much an opportunity to document glamorous perfection but instead a strange kind of physical work. It was work of the most demanding sort, requiring years of gruelling practice, yet resulting in public performance of staggering beauty and physical grace which seemed effortless.
This paradox fascinated Degas, and Laura Knight too. Sometimes they depicted the dancers in full costume, practising, the human body transformed into a kind of living sculpture. At other times, the artists went backstage. In these images there was an ironical unmasking of public show, the pictures functioning as a sort of metaphor for the contrast between private and public, between effortful or drab reality and polished artfulness. There was a wittiness sometimes in this unmasking, as here in Knight’s work; the contrast between the magic of her on-stage performance and back-stage reality is intentionally and humorously deflationary.
The pictorial innovations of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism cannot be understood without reference to the new technology of photography which revolutionised ways of thinking about pictorial composition and about the very aims of art. One of the features of photography which struck Degas, and others of his generation, was its randomness of vision, the way it accidentally gave prominence to aspects of a scene that the eye hardly noticed and obscured those which would normally have been foregrounded. He and other avant-garde figurative artists working in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries cultivated this arbitrariness, deliberately levelling the importance of all the pictorial elements of their works and presenting their chosen subjects from odd, off-centre positions.
Taking her cue from this photographic vision, Knight brings the viewer into her picture via the back of the chair, allows us only to see the dancer’s back, and gives pride of place to the great froth of fabric and the figure of the seamstress bending over it. The reduced field of vision – the cramped corner of a room – with figures and objects tightly grouped together – further works to emphasise the effect of arbitrariness. We have become so used to these pictorial strategies now that it is hard to grasp how strange they would have seemed after centuries of more narratively clear formats. Laura Knight was not an early exponent of these experiments but she is clearly influenced by them here.
A final word might be said about the rich colour and tactile handling of this work. Colour (bold red, pink, green and white) is celebrated for its decorative richness and in the dancer’s striped pantaloons, in the stuff of the tutu and in the handling of the floor we are made very aware of the artist’s brush, and of the stickiness and density of the paint. If the camera offered painters new ideas about compositional technique, it could also free them to do what black and white photography could not yet do: in the wake of early photography, painters were liberated to move from documentary description of the world to exploration of the ‘abstract’ qualities of their medium, qualities that could be enjoyed for their own sake.
Acquisition of the work – The de Pass gifts
Alfred de Pass carefully selected the works he presented to the gallery. The prints and drawings he gave covered a wide range of schools and historical periods, but the paintings and sculptural works were nearly all of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In part, this had to do with availability and affordability, but it was also a positive policy agreed on by de Pass and the gallery trustees that the South African art gallery should focus largely on art of the present rather than the distant past. What de Pass presented, budgetary constraints notwithstanding, offered an overview of some of the more interesting and experimental art of the time. It included a number of French and English, and increasingly, also, South African painters that the poorly-funded gallery could never have hoped to acquire on its own. By the late 1940s, de Pass had presented to the gallery nearly 250 works in a variety of media. In the 1990s, for the first time, a full retrospective exhibition of the de Pass gifts was held at the gallery and Room 3 was named after him in memory of his contribution to the gallery’s early history. 2
1 Until 1930, it occupied two rooms of an annex in the South African Museum.
2 See A. Tietze, The Alfred de Pass Presentation to the South African National Gallery, SANG Exhibition Catalogue, 1995.