Gloria Tessler on the English impressionist who volunteered to paint the Nuremberg Trial.
She was one of the best-known artists of the English Impressionist movement, celebrated for her figurative work, ballet dancers and circus performers. Then, as one of the few official women war artists during the Second World War, Dame Laura Knight painted women doing war work and army posters. But bored with the prospect of further domestic scenes including painting tanks, she volunteered to cover the Nuremberg trial. “It seems a pity,” she wrote, “for such an event to go unrecorded and I feel that artistically it should prove exciting.” As a result, Knight was commissioned the following year to paint the Nuremberg Trials for the British Government War Records, an event which her biographer, Barbara C Morden has described as “the finale of one of the biggest dramas of history; the dark tragedy that was World War II.”
Now the Ben Uri Gallery’s first full-scale virtual museum presents the two principal studies of Knight’s painting shown in her 1963 solo exhibition in the Upper Grosvenor Galleries. They are a pair of chalk and watercolour sketches of prisoners in the dock at the Nuremberg trial.
An intense and linear figurative work, The Dock – Nuremberg, described as the culmination of Knight’s professional life, is also imbued with the artist’s view of the destruction of the city. Here is a rogue’s gallery of the leading Nazis of the era – those who had not committed suicide before the trial – but to the interior darkness and formality of the subject, she adds the outer darkness in flames; a world the Nazis had destroyed.
The QC Phillipe Sands has described the effect of Knight’s painting on her when she saw it on the cover of the classic book, Nuremberg Trials by Ann and John Tusa. He writes: “There is here, too, a powerful sense of structure. In the midst of the dullness, the white helmets of the military guards stand out, offering a sense of order against a backdrop of ruin and explosive mayhem. The white pages being studied by the defendants offer a tantalising possibility of detail, but one that will not be available to us. We can but imagine what it is that these men grapple with”.
On October 1, 1946, the Tribunal convicted 19 of the defendants and acquitted three. Twelve were sentenced to death, three to life imprisonment and four to prison terms ranging from 10 to 20 years. Hermann Göring committed suicide the night before his execution.
In edited extracts from Barbara C Morden’s biography, Dame Laura Knight: A Life, we perceive the artist’s eye at work: The defence council, all “with the exception of one in a purple gown – robed in black, draping handsomely over the deep rose coloured velvet of their chairs and the grey of the carpet”. She faithfully depicts this scene in her sketches which led up to the final painting, noting the “Snowdrops”, the white helmeted US soldiers, “immovable as wooden images” behind the prisoners against the oak panelling. While the work is a faithful depiction of the courtroom, for various reasons Knight moved some of the defendants from the places where they were actually sitting.
The result is like a ship’s galley of despair. But there is no sentimentality here. Although the Snowdrops may seem like avenging angels, Knight details the prisoners’ bowed heads, some bald, some listening intently into their headphones, some impassive, others with heads in their hands, one or two in despair. The sketches seem particularly dynamic, filled with raw energy, capturing the moment in which the architects of Hitler’s black dream finally – and too late – meet their retribution.
Preparing for her work, Knight was ironically given luxurious rooms in the Grand Hotel which, she discovered, had been Hitler’s after he requisitioned the hotel for his own use. ”I often wonder if I am laying my head on Hitler’s own pillow – a full metre square filled with the finest down – the best pillow I have ever slept on”, she recorded in her diary.
Knight sketched the magnificent arches, marble staircases and chandeliers of the Courthouse in her diary. As an artist, she noted particularly the expressions of the British, American, French and Russian personnel – “all determined to put their stamp on the proceedings – some hard-faced, some vengeful, most implacable, a few compassionate.”
Her own painting materials had to pass intense checks by American Army security. She was struck by the drama of the proceedings as she entered the courtroom and described the defendants seated in two rows, “in sharp perspective” and lit by fluorescent strip lighting, the judges ranged opposite, and at floor level the prosecution and the witness boxes.
The exhibition includes a striking photo of Dame Laura Knight, in a black hat and black suit, staring impassively at her work at her 1963 solo show. Its impact seems to have remained with her all those years later.
To support their Laura Knight exhibition, Ben Uri offers a Zoom conversation at 6.30 pm on August 22 with Sir John Tusa, co-author with the late Ann Tusa of the standard reference book of the Trials, Dr Tony Simpson, director of the Wiener Holocaust Library, David Glasser and Sarah MacDougall—curator of the exhibition. Tickets cost £7.50 per person; £10 per household from [email protected]. A recording will be sent to those who booked but can’t make the time. Other time zones are listed.
The featured image is by Dame Laura Knight – http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/15506, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30219216