Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, until 21 August
Last week I was living the dream: specifically, my dream of going on a very long train journey with a good book and an art exhibition at the end of it. I was heading for Newcastle, for an exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery that I knew I couldn’t miss. As a brilliant bonus, a friend joined me at York – two have fun on Tyneside.
The Laing Gallery’s Challenging Convention (click for an introductory video about it) exhibition features the work of four twentieth century women who forged their own way in the art world, each admiring the others’ work, yet developing her own distinctive style and themes.
Probably the least well known of the quartet today is Dod Procter (1890–1972), who announces herself to us in this exhibition through a striking self-portrait that could have been painted yesterday: a sleek, dark bob and clothes of extreme simplicity. Perhaps her most famous painting is Morning, bought for the nation by the Daily Mail in 1927 (does the Daily Mail still do that sort of thing?) The portrait of a young woman in white waking/dozing/thinking? gives the feminine form strength and solidity, and allows it to dominate the canvas.
Procter’s skill is not confined to portraiture: still lifes and interiors proclaim her versatility. Kitchen at Myrtle Cottage is dreamlike in its soft pastel palette, yet one can almost hear the child seated at the table kicking her feet on the chair rungs.
Next up is Gwen John (1876–1939), sister of the more famous Augustus, but whose reputation is now beginning to eclipse his. ‘Interior’ is the word that best encapsulates most of her work, applicable to the still, self-contained gaze of her sitters or of her self-portrait, and to the restrained quiet of her attic room in Paris.
This self-containment is no illusion: though she worked in Paris for much of her career and was for some time Rodin’s lover, she remained impervious to developments in the art world around her, preferring to work in isolation.
Isolation is not a word one would associate with Vanessa Bell (1879–1961), the painter, designer, wife, mother and lover at the heart of the Bloomsbury Group, and firmly part of a modernist tide in art. Some of the works on display here were also on show in her exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery: the clear-eyed self-portrait from her later years, for example.
Besides expressive portraits of her lover Duncan Grant and her son Quentin Bell, there are interiors at Charleston and in Bloomsbury, many focusing on contrasts of pattern and colour. Who else would have made a conjunction of chair arms dominate the foreground of a painting?
Finally we come to Dame Laura Knight (1877–1970), accomplished across so many genres and a piercing observer who could establish a rapport with any sitter – gypsies, circus troupes and (though not featured here) the impoverished black patients in a Baltimore hospital. The selection of paintings displays this range: the vivid yet intimate portrait of a gypsy man, executed in just three to four hours; the panoramic wartime view of women raising a barrage balloon; the anatomical accuracy of Mary [an elephant] and the Ponies; and the direct appropriation of the male gaze in her portrait of a dancer clad only in an open shawl sitting as her dressing table.
Her command of different palettes and techniques is extraordinary. In an image used to publicise the exhibition, A Dark Pool, you can feel the stiff breeze billowing out the solitary figure’s dress and practically smell the ozone. (Though not a painting, one of the most satisfying items on display is a letter from a gallery to Knight’s husband – himself no mean painter – asking if they can borrow some of his wife’s pictures.)
This exhibition is already an embarrassment of riches, but there’s more. Alongside Challenging Convention, the Laing is offering WOW – Women Only Works on Paper, a selection of over fifty prints, sketches, watercolours and drawings, some from fairly established artists such as Winifred Nicholson, Paule Vezelay and Gwen Raverat, and others by more obscure artists who deserve to be more well known. It’s an exquisite collection well worth a visit.
Throw in the elegant sandstone buildings of Newcastle and the view of the many bridges over the Tyne as you glide in on the train, and you have all the makings of a grand day out.