Laura Knight, a British painter, said in 1954, “It is my opinion that fine realism is indeed true abstractionism.” Her detractors said she was just imitating reality, but Knight felt she changed the world more than abstract artists, who, in her opinion, ignored the sensuality and uniqueness of it.

We may make our own minds up at MK Gallery in Milton Keynes, which is hosting the biggest exhibition of her art since 1965. The breadth of Knight’s subject matter and approach is immediately apparent.

In many respects, she was a contemporary painter, dedicated to embracing modern life and experience, as well as being a modern lady. She aspired to do everything males could, even painting naked at a period when female art students couldn’t.

Whether it’s the naked women on Cornish beaches, the garish clowns in her 1930s circus pictures, or even the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force commanders of the 1940s, surrounded by the meticulously rendered paraphernalia of their working lives, she treated her subjects with seriousness and commitment, but also with enormous sensuous energy and a feel for the pleasures of looking.

Knight jumped from one style to the next with zeal and delight. I’m an impressionist, after all! a surrealism, to be sure! a professional colorist!

As she envisions fresh colors and brushstrokes, she screams out. She was studying acrobatics and lived beside the circus when she wasn’t painting. She was thirsty for life, and she was granted almost 93 years of it.

“My inner self continues to say even today – go on, keep on trying something different,” she wrote towards the conclusion.

Whether it was her pictures of herself as a painter, the ballet dancers, actresses, and circus performers she enjoyed watching, or the operatives she painted during WWII, Knight was an expert on women working. She was fierce in negotiating prices and exhibition space for women’s art, including her own, and was delighted to be named a dame in 1929 and the first female Royal Academician in 1936.

Knight grew up in a fairly poor home in Nottingham with her mother (who taught painting to local children), grandmother, and great-grandmother, and she understood that women worked from an early age (who had once made corsetry for the Queen). She became the youngest student ever enrolled at the Nottingham School of Art in 1889, at the age of 13, and seems to have fallen in love with Harold Knight, the college’s star student, at the age of 17.

Harold seemed unconcerned when her career took off, and he doesn’t seem to blame her for outrunning him. In the Yorkshire fishing port of Staithes, the Dutch hamlet of Laren, and the Cornish coastal resort of Newlyn, they found a home among artists.

Knight then started her more independent travels, constantly on the hunt for performers with whom she might share a home and sleeping among the soldiers throughout both world wars.

Perhaps Knight’s reputation would have been more secure if, like Vanessa Bell or Ben Nicholson, she had committed to modernism in both style and subject matter. It’s not her technique that endures over the decades, but the energy and sensuality of her images: the dance of concentration and amusement in a face, the movement of a figure in the air, or a barrage balloon in the breeze. She once said, “Today I paint.”

Her work is worth rereading because of its “today” quality.

Five outstanding works by knights to remember

Ella Ardelty, undated, on the High Trapeze

This was one of Knight’s most popular circus paintings from the 1930s. Ardelty has a certain nobility about her, even if she’s so comfortable on the trapeze that she’s holding one hand in the air.

Her muscles are tightened from exertion, yet there’s a sense of creative reverie in the scene that reminds us how much Knight appreciates this balance of dreaminess and hard labor. Ardelty’s nomadic life is dramatized by the grey-toned backdrop, which simultaneously isolates her and pushes formally towards abstraction.

Coventry, 1943: A Balloon Site (pictured top)

During WWII, Knight was very active, dedicating himself to painting female war laborers, partially to urge women to enlist. Women controlled barrage balloons, which were used to compel German bomber aircraft to fly higher in the sky, beginning in 1942.

Knight stated of the ladies she depicts in synchronized action, “No praise is too high for their tenacity.” This is a utilitarian image, yet the balloon as it inflates has a painterly lavishness to it, its folds both tight and wide in ways that appear to connect with Knight’s painting process.

Sketch of the Nuremberg Trial, 1946

Going to the Nuremberg trial of top Nazis in 1946 was Knight’s idea. She requested a seat in a transmitting box above the pier because she was unhappy with the view from the spectators’ gallery.

She inspected the hungry residents of the ruins outside of court and partied in the hotel (aged 68, she amazed her companions by doing a backflip on the dancefloor). By rendering the guys commonplace, she made them both pitiful and terrifying.

They’re reading and writing in this drawing; in the final painting, she’ll combine this courtroom scenario with themes of apocalyptic terror, painting burning structures that seem to be ready to swallow the defendants.

1913 Self-Portrait with Model

This is the painting in which Knight finds her voice, a bold image of a woman asserting her authority as an image-maker that is also a lovely personal portrait of two friends. Knight was defying the establishment by painting a naked lady in a studio.

Ella Naper, Knight’s acquaintance, is the sitter, and her stagey stance seems to be intended to emphasize her physical energy. Knight’s outfit, with its trilby hat and scarlet jacket, has a dapper vibe about it.

The reds of the outfit and background reflect on Naper’s skin, giving her the appearance of a lady who has just undressed.

Cornwall in the spring of 1914

Knight returned to her friend Naper a year after the self-portrait, painting her and her husband in a Cornish spring. Knight was residing in Newlyn at the time, and he was enthralled by the “walls aglow with primroses, violets, and anenomes.”

This is a picture of nature that is exuberantly opposed to the current historical dread as well as prevalent ideas of good taste and creative progress. Cornwall becomes a provocatively intense picture of natural brilliance in this scene.

Thanks to at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.