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Jack Smith: Abstract Portraits

Past display archive
18 March - 31 August 2015

Room 32


Portrait of C.M. Composer by Jack Smith, 1987 Private Collection, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London

Portrait of C.M. Composer
by Jack Smith, 1987
Private Collection, courtesy
Flowers Gallery, London

This display brings together four abstract portraits by the distinguished British painter Jack Smith (1928-2011).  Three of these paintings were made in the 1980s: two representing the composers Harrison Birtwistle and Colin Matthews, and the third the choreographer Ashley Page. The fourth is a self-portrait dated 1997.  None of these works functions as a portrait in a conventional way.  Rather than representing the sitter’s appearance, these works use colour, line and abstract shape suggestively and symbolically. These purely pictorial, dynamic elements were associated by Smith with the composers’ music and also the dancer’s movements.  They convey a sense of identity without recourse to physical description.

Smith first attained recognition as one of the founders of the so-called ‘Kitchen Sink’ school in the 1950s.  His early work took the form of a deliberately down-to-earth social realism.  Subsequently influenced by American abstract painting, Smith’s work changed course during the 1960s and became completely non-figurative. The earlier portraits shown here coincided with commissions for Smith to design sets and costumes for two ballets: Ballet Rambert’s production of Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum with music by Birtwistle in 1986, and the Royal Ballet’s Pursuit with music by Matthews in 1987. Both ballets were choreographed by Page.

Jack Smith – Abstract Portraits is the latest display in the Balcony series of Interventions.  Started in 2006, this programme of special loan displays focuses on unconventional approaches to portraiture by important, internationally recognised artists in the twentieth century.  To date, the series has included Francis Bacon, Anthony Caro and Andy Warhol, among others.   Each of these artists explored various means of representing a sitter’s face and body.  This display of Jack Smith’s abstract portraits goes further in dispensing with human appearance entirely. Being entirely abstract, these intriguing portraits pose  fundamental questions.  Portraiture is conventionally thought to be inseparable from the depiction of a sitter’s appearance.  The human face forms the basis of recognition and its expressions convey emotion.  But can portraiture evoke a human presence in other ways? Also, is a human being only a face, or are there other characteristics and areas of human experience that portraiture can address?

© National Portrait Gallery, London



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