Painter Warrior Poet
PRELUDE (to the American edition)
By Dr Damian Smith, Secretary AICA Australia (International Association of Art Critics, UNESCO sponsored)
There is a plaque in the Granary Burying Ground in Boston, Massachusetts commemorating the unmarked grave of artist John Smibert (1688-1751). This is unsurprising when one learns that Smibert was the first portrait painter of distinction to earn a living in Colonial America, and was proprietor of what is arguably the first American art gallery, opening in 1734. Smibert’s paintings open windows into that waning period of Baroque colonial society, in the lead up to the American Revolutionary War prior to the formation of the United States of America. As a migrant to the Americas, Smibert arrived with a decidedly European aesthetic, yet there is something in those fresh-faced, eager-eyed sitters that signal that something was different; Smibert’s subjects are not the pampered aristocrats of the Old World, but the adventurous pioneers of the new!
A century later and in another branch of the Smibert clan, that same sense of renewal encouraged migration to the even more distant colonies in Australia. It is in this antipodean branch that we find the subject of this monograph, the contemporary Australian painter Tony Smibert. Like his Baroque portrait painter ancestor, Tony Smibert is an artist who has explored the crossing and mingling of contrasting worlds – the Old World techniques of Romantic watercolour painting, the ancient Eastern traditions of Zen and Taoist brush painting, and the possibilities that a hybrid sensibility might enable.
An enjoyable aspect of my work as a curator and arts writer is teaching a course in critical and theoretical studies to undergraduate students enrolled in the vocational study of art. Throughout the semester, and much to the delight of my eagerly iconoclastic charges, the idea of traditional art practice is gently though thoroughly shredded. Aided by the grinding mill of contemporary theory, art’s trajectory from the 19th century onwards, and especially in the Western context, is revealed in its self-immolating brilliance. From the ‘Readymade’ artworks of Marcel Duchamp to the ‘dematerialisation of the art object’, as articulated by American cultural theorist Lucy Lippard, art is defined by whatever one decides it to be. The result is a free-for-all; a new orthodoxy dictates that anything and everything can be art. That is to say, anything and everything so long as it does not resemble art in its conventional sense. Abandoning art’s traditions has opened many possibilities, but it has also entailed a loss. In large part, the complex skill sets underpinning the plastic arts, and through which, great works of art were achieved, have been lost to us. In place, art exists without a stable base; it operates with recourse to no specific mediums, and the means by which art is judged is largely dependent on circumstances and perspectives that are tentative and temporary at best. It is unsurprising then that medium-specific practices appear both retrograde and enticing.
One such artist who has embraced a medium-specific practice is Australian watercolourist Tony Smibert. Born in 1949 in Melbourne, and now based in the island state of Tasmania, Smibert, who was trained at the self-same art school where I tutor in the dematerialisation of art, has dedicated a lifetime of study to the medium. That in itself should be enough of a reason to justify this publication, though as I quickly discovered, there is more to Tony’s practice than the brush. Two over-arching considerations attend a reading of the works emanating from his studio: 1. Tony Smibert is widely regarded as a leading authority on the work of British artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), arguably the most important English Romantic painter and pioneer of watercolour as a medium of distinction. 2. Tony Smibert is a master of the Japanese martial art known as Aikido. He holds the rank of 7th dan Aikikai and is widely hailed as one of the highest-ranking non-Japanese practitioners. Over a period of 45 years he was a student of the renowned sensei (teacher), Seiichi Sugano (1939-2010). Neither of these two factors can be overlooked in an analysis of Tony Smibert’s painting. Both the martial and the poetical entail extensive training. They demand philosophical inquiry, and they are predicated on courses of action that require a leap into the unknown. In wielding both brush and sword, the acolyte must partake of rigorous training, before releasing all conscious engagement with that searching; the warrior poet lays claim to his or her knowledge through action. All else is preparation.
Multiple Approaches to Painting
With the demanding skill-sets of ‘watercolour painter’, ‘Turner connoisseur’ and ‘Aikido practitioner’ in play, it is easy to appreciate why Smibert has developed a range of approaches to painting. Surveying his work across five decades, it is possible to see landscape paintings that are clearly influenced by Turner, while others take an entirely minimalist turn. There are works that the artist identifies as non-figurative, and which he distinguishes from abstraction, and there is a more recent body of acrylic on canvas paintings that are bracketed as ‘Tao Sublime’. Clearly, Tony Smibert has traversed a recognisable artistic path, drawing from the traditions of both East and West. That road has been an avenue for artists ranging from James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and Claude Monet (1840-1926), to the American ‘Zen generation’ artists of the 1950s and ‘60s including Ad Reinhart (1913-1967), Nam June Paik (1932-2006) and Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) as well as the Scottish-Australian Modernist Ian Fairweather (1891- 1974), to name just a few. While source influences and precedents are important, it is in the extent to which Tony Smibert has found his metier in water-based media that we discover an artist of unwavering commitment and from which, works of significance emerge. These sometimes lucid, sometimes enigmatic images conjure worlds and processes. Clearly recognisable places cohabit with sites of inner contemplation. In some of the compositions, a delight in the watercolour medium extends an inviting hand, while in others the visceral swirl of pigment and water on paper suggest the guiding force of nature. At times, a seeming casualness or ease is better understood through consideration of Smibert’s training: the extent to which he has investigated the watercolour medium, and the end game of a philosophical disposition entailing a release of conscious intent.
In The Manner Of (JMW Turner / Seichi Sugano)
In conversation with Tony Smibert, and through reading his published articles on art, I came to recognise the value that he accords to the disciplines of research and study. Both his natural inquisitiveness and his preparedness to embark on a decades long apprenticeship is reflected in his musings. For instance, this has led to Smibert being commissioned by the well-known publishing house Thames & Hudson to write the book on Turner’s watercolour painting techniques.1 The volume is illustrated with works by both Turner and Smibert, amongst others, and in those pages foremost Turner scholar, Joyce Townsend, contributes an overview of the master’s materials. As a visiting researcher to the Tate Gallery in London, which houses the largest collection of Turner watercolours anywhere in the world, Smibert received the rare honour of being allowed to paint with some of Turner’s actual pigments. However, it is from the perspective of Aikido that Smibert’s commitment to the demanding path of the student is best understood.
Here the Japanese martial term shuhari (守破離) provides insight. Describing the overall progression in martial arts training, shu-ha-ri loosely translates as “to abide by; to defend” (shu), “to break” (ha), “to leave; to depart” (ri). The three distinct phases are seen to interlink: emulation, expansion and growth, and lastly, the arrival at a path of one’s own. While each phase provides the impetus for the next, the final stage of ‘departure’ is suggestive of ascension to maturity. Mastery however is not simply interchangeable with dominion over ‘skill’ or ‘technique’, a factor with which Tony Smibert is well acquainted. Rather, what is required is the attainment of a mental disposition that provides for a flow state untrammelled by conscious thought or intent. In describing an encounter with his sensii, Seiichi Sugano, Smibert suggested that attacking him was like attacking ‘water’; it was impossible to quantify Sugano’s technique, as indeed his actions were not grounded in mechanical logic. Using this as an analogy for painting, one is able to see that the interplay of those key components - surface, medium, pigment, brush, hand, eye, mind and spirit affords the possibility that an artist of attainment might experience and engage with this mix without recourse to strenuous mental control. For instance, if one studies Smibert’s ‘Sword Cut’ series of watercolours, it is hard to dismiss the sense of ‘waiting’ that preceded the execution of these ‘single stroke’ works, and indeed the after-impression of the figure that made those ‘cuts’. Yet while one recognises the preparation required for the creation of these works, one also senses the letting go in the final instance. This theme of vigorous motion, preceded by a containment and focusing of energy, re-emerges in Smibert’s acrylic on canvas series ‘Flying White’. The series pays homage to Jackson Pollock’s lesser known ‘black pourings’, most recently shown en masse in the exhibition ‘Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots’ at Tate Liverpool in 2015. Pollock’s series evokes turbulence, while in contrast Smibert’s paintings alternate between vigour and serenity. It is not difficult to imagine the wispy tendrils of his paint marks as being akin to the shadows of a Japanese ikebana flower arrangement. This is not to say they are merely decorative, but rather, one perceives how the expression of energy is suggestive of a process wherein kinetic force is accumulated, expressed and dissipated. It is an expression of process, just as surely as ikebana seeks a deeper understanding of nature through the placement of discretely selected specimens, echoing a more complex natural cycle.
But where is J.M.W. Turner in this? And what linkages has Tony Smibert made between these far flung traditions? Starting with Turner, who died in 1851, one recalls that Japan would not open to the West until 1853, when American Commodore Matthew Perry led four ships into the harbour at Tokyo Bay, seeking to establish regular trade for the first time in 200 years. Turner had died two years prior in 1851, yet many of his late works seem touched by Eastern thought. Think, for instance, of Turner’s Falls of Schaffhausen (Val d’Aosta), c. 1845 in the National Gallery of Victoria. Purchased by the gallery in 1973 shortly after Smibert was a pupil at the adjoining National Gallery School, here is a painting that hinges on the potency of a vast and empty whiteness. Turner has painted a swirling vortex that is scarcely representational in any conventional sense. Yet this dynamic painterly energy ensnares the imagination; seemingly its wisps of swirling cloud clasp the imagination, pulling the viewer into its daring centre. Had one not known its dates, one might easily deduce that the work was a response to those Zen masterpieces that celebrate empty space. Falls of Schaffhausen is an enigma. It is not a painting that one can dissect with ease; it is unclear as to whether it is finished, and it is not enough to site this canvas as an example of late European Romanticism. Undoubtedly, Turner had mastered the aesthetic principles of the Sublime, yet his paintings weave veils of light and colour that surpass any of his contemporaries. In Turner’s paintings, we find a language that is difficult to calculate. Moreover, Turner’s is an idiom that hovers between representation and abstraction, long before that word ‘abstraction’ had gained currency as an aesthetic descriptor. It is that ‘hard to pin down’ positioning that has been of particular interest to Tony Smibert; it has fused with his interest in Eastern aesthetics and philosophy and in a surprising way it has provided a way to respond to his own localised situation in Australia.
Minimalism and Non-Figurative
In the context of Australian painting, especially in the 20th century, Turner’s ambivalent aesthetic would find an appreciative audience, not least of all in Tony Smibert. Locally, and in Melbourne especially, abstraction did not quite find favour as it had in the United States of America, largely as a result of conservative taste. With similar equivocation, the formalist figuration of British painters like Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud was also passed over in favour of narrative based paintings that revealed aspects of the national story. The Australian painters of the 1940s and 1950s produced something that was similar to the paintings of Mexicans Diego Rivera (1886- 1957), Frida Khalo (1907-1954) and José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), whose works reflected local Mexican culture as a fusion of the Indigenous, the European and the Modern. Smibert’s art school teacher John Brack (1920-1999) was a committed figurative artist, but his works were largely social commentaries centred on life in post-war Melbourne. The period is immortalised in the 1959 film ‘On the Beach’. Set in Melbourne, it starred Hollywood luminaries Ava Gardener and Gregory Peck, and is suggestive of the conservatism of the local culture. In contrast, the best known of the Australian Modernists, Sidney Nolan (1917-1991), perceived a pathway between abstraction and figuration. Nolan placed the Constructivist ‘black square’ in front of an Australian bush landscape to produce his well-known ‘Ned Kelly’ suite of paintings depicting the saga of Irish Australian ‘bushranger’ Ned Kelly, a kind of antipodean Jessie James whose life was also prematurely cut short. Like Smibert, Nolan found inspiration in Turner, perceiving in those wispy veils a way to render the scrubby Australian bush. One such work, the nine-panel painting ‘Glenrowan’, 1966 is housed in the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh; it was painted in Nolan’s New York studio in the well-known Chelsea Hotel, and it is suffused with that marvellous Turnerian light. Tony Smibert studied at the same art school as Nolan though in radically contrasting times, so his awareness of this Australian precursor is not merely coincidental. For Tony Smibert, the logic of mining the ‘non-figurative’ reflects his interest both in Turner and in Zen and Taoist painting. But as we can now see, it also reflects his connection to precedents in Australian art. That coalescence of the European Sublime, the aesthetic principles of Zen painting and Aikido, and the legacy of Australian landscape painting have all fed into Tony Smibert’s art. Living in Tasmania, where the presence of the land and nature is ubiquitous, Smibert has made it his task to arrive at that point of departure signalled in the ‘ri’ of ‘shuhari’.
To see what that coalescence might look like, attention turns to Smibert’s large-scale series of acrylic on canvas paintings titled ‘Tao Sublime’. Described by the artist and arts writer Johnathan Bowden as ‘protolandscapes’, these rugged scenes of towering escarpments and denuded bedrock lead us to a site far-distant from Tasmania, to the other side of the world and to the Snowdonia peaks in Wales in the UK. This is Turner country. As a young journeyman artist, Joseph Mallord Turner first visited Wales in 1795 and in 1798 he headed north to the snow capped peaks of Snowdonia. One composition from this period, ‘A Slate Quarry in Wales’2 circa 1795, is reflective of Turner’s early combination of pencil and wash on paper. This is prior to those swirling dynamos that we see in the later paintings, and if there was ever any doubt about Turner’s drafting skills, these early studies reveal the brilliance of his eye. It is to this ‘proto’ stage of Turner’s practice, his early and more conventional period, that Smibert turns in the creation of his ‘Tao Sublime’ paintings. Studying photographs of Smibert at work on these canvases, the sheer physicality of the process is evident, even to the extent that the artist has replaced the conventional artist paint brush with a sturdy household broom. In terms of motivation, Smibert reveals his conviction that Turner, in his later years, had arrived at a state of being that one might associate with the Chinese philosophical system of Taoism in its advanced forms. Specifically, Smibert perceived in Turner’s work a perfect alignment between artist and subject, with subject being the eternal rhythms of the universe. This radical conclusion is no throwaway line, but has come after years of technical study, and a realisation that one cannot understand Turner through an analysis of technique alone. In large part, Smibert’s insights pointed him in the direction of Turner’s early work, being the basis for the artist’s future maturity.
In responding to this realisation, Smibert’s Tasmanian studio in Deloraine became the setting in which he unites the insights of Taoism on the one hand, and the European Sublime on the other. Working with acrylic as if with watercolour, paint is applied and then, when partially dried, water or more paint is used as a solvent. The technique inverts the convention of layers being built one on top of the other, with a washing away of pigment enabling a residual stain to appear. Unlike the well-known ‘scrape’ works of French painter Pierre Soulages (b.1919-), which celebrate the mark as a formalist device, Smibert’s paintings are entirely suggestive of the land. The unyielding qualities of stone combine with gravitational force and sweeping, manual action to produce an image of ancient earth. Against this backdrop, the presence of us humans is a fleeting blink of an eye.
The monochrome palette, while evocative of Japanese and Chinese ink on paper works, is also reminiscent of the 19th century Tasmanian painter William Charles Piguenit (1836-1914). His monochrome paintings of the Australian wilderness are housed in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart and they are well-known to Smibert. Tasmania is famous for its pristine landscapes, but for those who know it well, the island’s darkness in Winter is impossible to ignore. Smibert’s Welsh landscapes might easily be a representation of Tasmania’s famous scenery. But as we explore these spaces, which have arisen fundamentally through process, we arrive at primordial bedrock as old as the earth itself. As reflections of the artist’s mind, here is stillness beyond the realms of conscious thought.
In 2016 Tony Smibert’s name appeared in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, registering the accolade of an Order of Australia “for significant services to aikido through a range of roles, and to the visual arts as a painter and water colourist”. The award comes after a lifetime of work and achievement and is reflective of the high esteem in which Smibert is held by so many. Throughout that time Smibert has been collected by countless institutions and by dedicated private collectors who have followed the course of his career. Smibert has also preserved a collection of his own works, setting aside those studies and paintings that catch his eye, or are suggestive to him of future evolution and serialisation. Along with the artist’s collection of 19th century watercolour boxes and palettes, and works of art from that period, this represents a fascinating repository, reflecting a lifetime of dedication to watercolour. That collection also forms the basis for this publication and is here revealed for the first time.
THE TAO SUBLIME
By Jonathan Bowden
Protolandscapes by Tony Smibert
It is the coldest day yet of the Tasmanian Autumn and I find myself driving through Deloraine at 8 in the morning on my way to meet Tony Smibert and his wife Carmel Burns for breakfast. Snow has fallen along the Western Tiers during the night and little transparent puffs of mist and cloud are chasing their shadows along the ridges as I turn off from the Mole Creek Road, into the ordered tranquillity of the Smibert house and garden. Tony is on the phone in his studio as I arrive but leaps out of the door to greet me, and we walk straight through his office with its cases of Japanese kimonos, gold framed paintings, and half opened boxes of 200 year old watercolour pans, and into his studio.
It is a year since I have visited, and he is eager to show me what he has been doing. He has told me something of what to expect. He has been thinking of Malevich's black square and exploring this highly formal notion in a much bolder way than he has worked before, influenced also by Jackson Pollock and American Abstraction, themes he started working on at a large scale about four years ago. Using jet black acrylic paint on large square white canvases he has been producing a great number of what I can only call 'Protolandscapes'.
Sometimes these are just a line or a series of lines wandering across the centre of a white panel, turning into a brushstroke and vanishing again; sometimes layer after layer of washing out and repainting to produce something surprisingly close to his watercolour landscapes. Peaks, mists, troughs in the ground where water settles. What brush is he using? A yard broom. Yes; of course. Why not? Some of the paintings resemble etchings or dry points and, as I look at them I find it hard to think of them as being by the same hand that produces luminous watercolours only a handspan wide and employing the full gamut of romantic imagery; turbulent skies, distant waterfalls, mountains and wheeling birds.