Vanessa Bell, Gwen John, Laura Knight - From Victorian to Modern – Innovation and Tradition.

Bruce Turnbull 12/03/2007

Rating: 3/5

Starting their working lives at the end of the Victorian age, Bell, John and Knight's creative talents flowered just as modernism became a pervasive force. Collectively, their careers illustrate the myriad changes in British art that took place in this period; including the outlandish curve of abstraction.

In Gwen John's work, we have a large quantity of subtle portraits, carefully detailed and well designed. “Dorella in a Black Dress” overtly imitates French artist Ingres whilst the perplexingly dark tones reflect her admiration of James McNeill Whistler. Others in a similar vein are “The Artist's Sister Winifred” and “The Student” from 1903 ; depicting slightly off model yet strikingly vivid female characters from her daily life. In contrast, “Landscape at Tenby with Figures” is a lesser known exterior scene, using the artist's home as the background - the harbour side not far from her home off the Esplanade.

Vanessa Bell's first exhibited work “Lady Robert Cecil” is a trying conglomeration of thick colours in massed texture, which to others who harbour no penchant for work of this kind, is rather one dimensional; however, the bright, breezy courtyard shot of “The Hotel Garden, Florence” is very inviting with nice, fluid brushwork in the same refined fashion as Gwen John's earlier paintings. This is huge highlight due to its simplicity and confined layout. She of course painted a small scale portrait of her son (“Julian as a Baby”) which was symptomatic of the era, but compared to her more ambitious designs, it is merely another shade of grey.

Laura Knight is the real talent here. Her wonderfully detailed “Children” depicts her two youngest, one playing recklessly on the stone floor, the other sound asleep in its serene surroundings. Totally devoid of the lack of intimacy employed by both John and Bell, this is one of a series of canvases which feature similarly personal settings. “Under the Bridge at Staithes” from around 1900 is unusually balanced; being rather decorative and enveloping in its nature. This new direction was exchanged in favour of the naturalism that can be seen in paintings such as “Dressing the Children” and the chillingly graphic landscape “The Old Mill” which in contrast to her work produced whilst in Staithes, lacks the jovial animation and replaces it with ambiguous watercolour.

This is an inspiring display, despite the rather docile Gwen John. Both Laura Knight and Vanessa Bell's staggeringly honest and detailed depictions of social status is shockingly real. Indeed, “From Victorian to Modern” is an interesting collection, created by artists on the verge of breaking tradition.

5 August 2006 - 15 April 2007 Laing Art Gallery, New Bridge Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, 0191 232 7734, Mon to Sat 10am to 5pm, Sun 2pm to 5pm, free