From painting nudes at a time when it was forbidden to sleeping among the troops in both world wars, the vitality of her work makes her still strikingly relevant

“It is my opinion that fine realism is indeed true abstractionism,” the British painter Laura Knight wrote in 1954. Her critics complained that she was just copying life, but Knight believed that she transformed the world more than abstract painters, who seemed to her, to ignore its sensuality and specificity.

We can decide for ourselves at the largest exhibition of her work since 1965, curated at MK Gallery in Milton Keynes. What becomes swiftly clear is the copiousness of Knight’s subject matter and style. She was a modern painter in many ways: committed to taking on modern life and experience, and to being a modern woman. She wanted to do all that men could do, painting nudes at a time when female art students weren’t allowed to do so. She treated her subjects with seriousness and commitment, but also with enormous sensuous energy and a feel for the pleasures of looking, 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.

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