From the times of John Ruskin (1819-1900) and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and well into the 20th century, some British artists seem to have held the view that Western art, having reached a zenith with the simple, direct compositions of early Renaissance, had later been 'corrupted' by Mannerism (the showy, 'unnatural', twisting treatment of the human figure favoured by, say, Raphael or Michelangelo) and every artistic current that came after. Hence the Italian Quattrocento was held up as a 'gilded age' to which some artists seem to have wanted (literally) to return.
Art produced in this vein has often been saluted as inspired and innovative but, in all honesty, to me it has always looked self-conscious, lacking in vigour and imagination, stiff and reactionary, coming from a time when all sorts of experimental currents throughout Europe (coexisting, of course, with more 'traditional' approaches) were busy pushing back every boundary and developing entirely new artistic languages from scratch.
Winifred Knights was, without a doubt, a British artist decisively influenced by this worship of the Quattrocento, as shown conclusively by the current exhibition Winifred Knights (1899-1947) (08/06 – 18/09/2016) at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in South London.
Knights, a very gifted draughtswoman with a sensitive, masterful touch, attended the Slade School of Fine Art from 1915 onwards. In 1920 Knights became the first woman in England to win (thanks to her well-known work The Deluge, present at the exhibition) the very prestigious Scholarship in Decorative Painting awarded by the British School at Rome. Knights returned to England from Italy in 1925, having married fellow Rome scholar Thomas Monnington. After a somewhat less prolific later career, she passed away at the age of 47. The exhibition contains many beautiful (if very traditional) examples of Knights's draughtsmanship in the form of academic exercises and pencil, watercolour and oil studies, later sometimes incorporated into Knights's major paintings (I particularly enjoyed Knights's landscape studies which feature a beautiful simplication of the form and a lovely sense of light and shadow). Besides The Deluge (with its quirky composition and decidedly pre-mannerist treatment of the human figure), the exhibition is organised around a few other major pieces like The Marriage at Cana (1923) or Scenes from the Life of St Martin de Tours (1928-33). To the last, the organisation of the space of the paintings throws the viewer straight back to Paolo Ucello or Piero della Francesca.
Regardless of what one may think of the merits of the artistic currents personified by Knights, this is a powerful, enjoyable exhibition devoted to an undoubtedly talented artist and a window onto artistic thought in this key stage for the development of modern British art.