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Lost City

Exhibition Review: A Female Gaze at Nottingham Castle

28 April 22 words: Georgia Guirguis

A Female Gaze crosses the generational divide, as Caroline Walker and Dame Laura Knight question the power of the gaze. As their portraits of women look back at us, we must ask who is really looking at who

Laura Knight & Caroline Walker: A Female Gaze examines the work of two female artists who take the female figure as their subject. Spanning 100 years, the paintings on show ask us to consider how it is that these women hold themselves. In what contexts they exist, and how they relate to the world around them. 

The title and the works on show point to a huge cannon of feminist theory that has been constantly asking how women can reclaim their power.

In 1987, feminist theorist Luce Irigaray presented research on the ways this power balance is manifested through speech, specifically the words men and women used to describe their relationship to the world around them. She considered the ways men and women are socialised to convey their degree of ownership and agency in the world and, by extension of that, asked what can we learn about the ways women are therefore presented visually? Irigaray found that whilst women made clear their real relationships to the world around them in the way they spoke, they were less likely to 'subjectivise' it as their own.

Thirty or so years later, perhaps this finding can be challenged, but it comes to mind in this powerful conversation between Walker and Knight’s work. Both artists focus, not just on what it is that women are paying attention to, but also on the various meanings that women derive from the work they do. The women presented in this exhibition are not necessarily powerful in a way that defies the realities that they are presented with. Instead, the paintings lay bare the spectrum of ownership women have had in their lives over the last 100 years. Walker, as the contemporary painter in this exhibition, is therefore tasked with presenting her observation of contemporary women. Her take is perhaps unnervingly lucid.

The exhibition begins with Dame Laura Knight’s work, a celebration of her successes as a Nottingham born artist and her fight to be included in the male-dominated art world. She is drawn, in her earlier work, to subjects living in poverty and hardship. In these earlier paintings The Fishing Fleet (1900) and Dressing the Children (1906) her brush strokes are muddied and blurred, poignantly conveying the difficulty of working-class life in the early Twentieth Century in Staithes, North Yorkshire. Thus, the empathy she feels for her subjects and the intimacy with which she paints them is at once apparent . 

[Walker’s] focus is intimate and yet anonymous, her brushstrokes almost undetectable. She plays with light, as though a film camera working out the best ways to highlight what she sees or, indeed, what she wants us to see

In her later works that study women of the Romany communities, Knight, now a successful and well-known painter, makes visible these women of marginalised communities. Her account is perhaps voyeuristic, but nevertheless offers a social commentary at a time when exclusionary social conventions were rigorously enforced. Whether these women themselves found this representation to be empowering is another matter. In these works, it seems she teases out a trust from her subjects. As made clear by the literature presented alongside this show, Knight purposefully positioned herself within social groups whose perspectives and lifestyles were erased from the visual language of that time. Her models are not commissioned; instead they are women she meets by chance, women that she must relate to in some way.

While her work on display may be contextually radical, aesthetically her approach is very traditional. Nevertheless, critics have spoken of the value of this in terms of representation. Her establishment approach to portraiture meant that she was included in the art world, and by extension it meant that these otherwise erased women were represented. 

The arrangement of the exhibition is such that you follow the life and work of Laura Knight, tracing her time in Cornwall, her time spent at Epsom and Ascot painting travelling communities, and her time spent with the entertainment classes as well as documenting the changing role of women at the turn of the 19th century. It finishes with some examples of her paintings commissioned by the War Artists' Advisory Committee to paint recruitment posters for the Women’s Land Army. Whilst this would have been a huge achievement at that time, it begs the question of how accurate Knight’s representation of “real” women was. It is at this point we are introduced to Caroline Walker’s work, a showcase of rich but ambiguous paintings alongside sketches and drawings from the last four years.

Walker is interested in film-like snapshots, as though arranging a mood-board for the scenes of a woman’s life. Almost all are focussed on what the women are looking at: a new-born baby, their computer screens, telescopes, or other women’s hands as in Nail Bars (2016). In this respect, Three Maids (2018) stands out. It is the only painting on show where the faces of the women are visible, and although their expressions are cold and vacant, an element of their agency is reclaimed.

Walker, like Knight, is known for highlighting the often-overlooked roles performed by women particularly in politically fraught and gendered spaces of work: The home, hospitals, nail salons and science labs. Her focus is intimate and yet anonymous, her brushstrokes almost undetectable. She plays with light, as though a film camera working out the best ways to highlight what she sees or, indeed, what she wants us to see. 

Her account is perhaps voyeuristic, but nevertheless offers a social commentary at a time when exclusionary social conventions were rigorously enforced

Walker’s paintings are bold in their lack of detail but also frustrating, not because they are not beautiful but because they make you want to bang on the window to ask these women who they are and whether they are happy. This is perhaps Walker’s talent, while she is curious and interested in the lives of women, she does not want to intervene.

In some ways, Laura Knight’s and Caroline Walker’s works are incomparable. Knight’s work presents an optimism that is absent in Walker’s work. The women in Knight’s paintings are the proud subjects of their canvases, but Walker’s are embedded in their surroundings. Reliant on their crafts, skills, and chores. The task the title sets, of subverting the male gaze through the mere reality of women painting women, therefore is slightly lost on Walker’s work. We only see her subjects as engrossed in what they do, and not necessarily who they are.

 However, is it enough that Knight fought tooth and nail to be respected in traditionally male spaces – that she fought her way into life drawing classes that women were otherwise excluded from – and into membership of the Royal Academy to become its first female member? Does she subvert the cultural imperative of the male gaze simply because she occupies the same space it once occupied? Both painters make no move to answer these questions in their work, nor should they, but the exhibition and the title ask it of them. 

It is not new for women to be the subjects of painters. It is their subjection to their gaze that can often be problematic. Nevertheless, visibility is powerful. The depiction of nude women, women from marginalised communities, women as scientists, working-class women, women who look after their homes, and women who dance, in this exhibition, is important. This ‘making-visible’ of women painted by women shakes our unconscious understanding of how patriarchal societies have taught us to view women. These paintings and the subjects, therefore, deserved a much more generous space . One that would have done justice to the weight of the theme the title draws from. And, one that could have accommodated a more diverse representation of women artists who take women as their subjects, of which there are many.

This is not to say that women who paint women should only be seen as divine and infallible, but it is to continue to challenge the rigidity of male-female subjectivity. This is where this exhibition triumphs; in its documentation of women who for one brief moment did not need to rely on the attention of the male gaze for validation.

Laura Knight & Caroline Walker: A Female Gaze is currently on view at Nottingham Castle until the 5th June

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