A graduate of the Slade School of Art, Matthew Smith’s artistically formative years were spent in France, between 1905 and 1907. While there, he studied at Henri Matisse’s Académie Matisse in Paris. This painting marks a turning point in Smith’s practice. There is a confident brutality to his application of paint, along with abrasive colour combinations and an awkward eroticism. One could say that there is a certain ‘ugliness’ to this work, though perhaps unlovely, uneasy, or even graceless are more suitable adjectives to use.
The Fitzroy Street nudes, of which this is the second, were executed early in Smith’s career and as John Rothstein, Tate Director between 1938 and 1964 describes, Smith rarely made preliminary studies for his paintings: ‘First he draws in his composition on a blank canvas in thin paint (well diluted with oil) so that it may easily be washed off.’ Later in his career, this alla prima technique would become ever more assertive and he would gain increasing recognition, representing Britain twice at the Venice Biennale – first in 1938 and again in 1950. Smith regularly exhibited in London and in 1953, a year before he was knighted, he exhibited a solo show at the Tate.
This is not a calm painting and the eroticisation of the nude is rather more edgy than it is sensual. It is interesting that Smith has used ‘unnatural’ pigments for all but the model’s navel, nipples and lips. Unlike her blue hair and yellow or green skin, these parts of her body are painted with life-like colouring: they are red signals that lead our vision towards her erotic zones.
The promise of a bed is tucked away behind a pink curtain. Though it is sequestered in the background, the angle of the model’s thighs, the position of the rug, the direction of the artist’s brushstrokes and the balance of this painting’s colouration all pull the viewer’s gaze towards this furniture. One might imagine undercurrents of the ‘untoward’ in this work, but more than anything, this painting depicts a rather mundane exchange – that between a model and her painter. The figure is in the typical position of the odalisque. A servant of the Ottoman sultan’s concubines and wives, and mythologised figure of history and art history, the odalisque is typically depicted in this pose: an arm bent above the head and one knee or leg gently crossed over the other.
Just as this work marks the beginning of Smith’s confident sublimation of other artist’s influences into his own personal style, we might look at the subject of this painting in the same way. Rather than a passive recline commonly favoured for the odalisque figure, Smith’s nude is instead sitting up. She poses on a chair for apparently no other reason than to be looked at – to be painted. In this work Smith brings the archetypal odalisque into his own realm – literally his personal atelier – in order to appropriate her and take her as his own. A classical figure of art is disconnected from her mythically elegant setting and carried into an artist’s studio on Fitzroy Street. She is a servant of a painter’s desire to re-appropriate her place within the canon according to his own burgeoning practice.
© Gemma Sharp 2010