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From June 23 to September 17, 2017
Program Ismael Smith (pdf 713 Kb)
Reviewing the career of Ismael Smith Marí (Barcelona, 1886 – White Plains, New York, 1972) in depth was a long overdue task in the history of Catalan art. Smith was famous during the early years of his career, but in 1919 he left for the United States, at which point the process of oblivion began for him. He never managed to integrate there as he had hoped and he gradually gave up art for his naïve and obsessive research into cancer cures. Finally, in 1960, he was interned against his will in the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum outside New York. In Catalonia he wasn’t entirely forgotten as an artist but he was restricted to the field of satirical illustration and bibelots. This was because of his transgressive production, always pushed to the limit, in the orderly world of Noucentisme he belonged to.
His grotesque or expressionistic deformations, the sexual ambiguity of his male or female figures and the horrific scenes in his engravings had no place in the placid Mediterraneanism that prevailed as the only possible way out for Modernisme. It was disturbing and varied work that gradually dropped out of the official discourse of Catalan art and was eventually rejected and scorned. Reappraisal of his figure only came after his death, thanks to the efforts of some of his most faithful admirers.
The exhibition is arranged in five rooms: the person, the illustrator, the sculptor, the engraver and the artist’s tragic end.
You'll find more information about The restoration of three previously unpublished plaster sculptures by Ismael Smith at the museum's blog.
The life and work of Ismael Smith seem inseparable, perhaps more so than in any other Catalan artist of the time. People as different as Eugeni d’Ors and Raimon Casellas saw this at once. It was as though he was one more creation in his catalogue, or perhaps the masterpiece that was the sum of all his works in a splendid archetype, attractive for some and, in the long run, repellent for others. Ismael never went unnoticed by anyone. He always managed to attract attention and he loved it! He was his own work of art, just as an out and out dandy should be. But what’s more, and unlike so many other idle show-offs in history, he was also an untiring worker, despite the many adverse circumstances he suffered, often as a result of the chimera created by his work and his personality.
He recorded the way his face evolved over time, with a studiedly impeccable turnout that was never repellent or distant, but friendly and amenable, because he knew he was attractive and charming. At first he did so all dressed up English-style, later like an American film star. He always looked forward, half out of the corner of his eye, and always with his peculiar smile, which gradually misted over in the course of time.
Alongside his rise as a sculptor, Ismael Smith also emerged as an excellent illustrator and draughtsman, in a golden atmosphere and age for Catalan art. From 1906 to 1912 Smith was one of the most celebrated illustrators in the Barcelona press. His evolution from Modernisme towards English and Central European trends made him one of the most innovative artists in the field of illustration. A loyal admirer of Aubrey Beardsley and Jessie M. King, thanks to Alexandre de Riquer’s well oriented teaching, Ismael built up a provocative iconography that invoked sexual ambiguity, sarcasm and frenzy, something unusual in the orderly context of Noucentisme and a hypocritical conservative society.
Having achieved success (and having provoked) in Barcelona, Smith left for Paris, where he stayed from 1911 to 1914. In the French capital he connected with the cream of the avant-garde, but he didn’t commit himself and his personal universe became very dispersed. He did illustrations,fashion drawings, engravings, sculpture, painting and even furniture design. He exhibited in all the leading salons, like the Salon d’Automne and the Salon des Indépendents, but the outbreak of the First World War forced him to return to Barcelona. By then, though, his name had begun to fade and he never managed to integrate again as he had hoped.
More than anything else, Smith saw himself as a sculptor. His earliest works date from 1902 and take us back to his teachers: on one hand Rafael Atxé and on the other Josep Llimona. He already showed two trends at that time, one erotic and Dionysian and the other mystical, that were to stay with him for ever. In 1903 he won several awards and from then on he was habitually present on the art scene. By about 1904 he had defined his aesthetic, immersed in the nascent expressionism that was emerging in Catalonia with Mani, Gargallo and the early Casanovas, but which never caught on as it was overshadowed by Noucentista classicism. Smith stuck to this expressionism and this contributed to his rejection. His group In Abundance, presented at the 5th International Exhibition of Fine Arts and Artistic Industries in 1907, where it won a prize, disappeared mysteriously some time between 1911 and 1925, even though Barcelona City Council had bought it for the new Museu d’Art in the Ciutadella park, and was probably destroyed.
He also planned a lot of monuments, but most of them were boycotted and he was not able to finish any of them. Nevertheless, he had unconditional admirers like Eugeni d’Ors, Josep Pijoan and Francesc Cambó. But he was never accepted as a sculptor of any worth by the institutions and was always marginalised. Faced with so many failures, in 1919 he left with his family for New York.
Like Rusiñol and Casas, Smith enjoyed flamenco. Identified as an emblem of Spanishness, manolas and bullfighters were a popular icon in the European culture of the 19th and early 20th century, when it also caught on in the United States. It was in the field of art that it became most widespread, generating a tradition that transcended geographical borders. In music, Albéniz and Granados, and later Falla, conversed with French music, which had absorbed the ‘Spanish’ aesthetic. Picasso and Anglada Camarasa, among others, did the same in painting.
Smith was a close friend of Granados, and also of Laura, daughter of Albéniz, the other ‘Catalan composer of Spanish music’, as he wrote on the bookplates he did for the two musicians. Within the Catalan independence movement, Smith defended this aesthetic without prejudice as an important source of inspiration. And he turned it on its head with his enormous, caustic sense of humour. Some of the engravings done in Paris between 1911 and 1914 and all the ones done in New York in 1919 belong in this line. But his majos and majas and the tablaos are always equivocal or grotesque, and in the bullfighting scenes the bull almost always attacks the bullfighter and disembowels him. With this repertory and that of his bookplates, Smith made a name for himself in the United States and achieved recognition, although in the course of time he was relegated to oblivion.
Smith used his abundant Goyaesque repertory as a letter of presentation to the New World, but once settled in New York he hardly continued with it. His American work, done mainly between 1919 and 1925, centred on sexuality and mysticism, in a closed circle, and also on portraits in sculpture with an unconventional aesthetic. In 1926 he returned to Catalonia, but his production still failed to find its place in the predominantly conservative society. Even so, he tried to integrate and took part in the international contest for the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which opened the 1929 International Exposition, with a work that shocked everyone and was turned down. It was a ‘queer’ image, with a gay, mannered aesthetic, for which he was almost excommunicated. It was his last great failure. In 1931 he returned to the United States to live with his family again. There he still produced the occasional sculpture and a fair number of drawings and paintings, but eventually he gave up art and became obsessed with scientific research and nudism. In 1960 he was arrested by the police following a complaint by the neighbours for going around nude and he was committed to the Bloomingdale Insane Ayslum, where he died in 1972.