(Blogpost) Jack Smith: From Social-Realist to Sounds and Silences

(c) Jack Smith, Sounds and Silences; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Episode Six of Art Snaps focuses on artworks currently on display at Swindon’s Civic Offices. The exhibition presents 18 highlights from Swindon’s collection, which span about 100 years of modern British art, and represent nationally important artists as well as home-grown talent.

The exhibition opened in September 2019, and in May 2020 the Art on Tour engagement programme was due to launch a series of “Walk and Talks” alongside the exhibition. Sadly, these are not to be (for now at least).

So our most recent Art Snap focuses on three artworks on display at the Civic Offices; offering up information and insights about Sylvia Gosse’s The Printer (1915), Claude Francis Barry’s Tower Bridge, London – A Wartime Nocturne (c.1940) and Jack Smith’s Sounds and Silences (early 1980s).

Of course, the excitement doesn’t stop there…

At the end of the episode, I promised to publish blogposts about artworks from this exhibition too. I’m not one to break my promises, which is why this piece looks at Jack Smith (1928 – 2011) in a bit more depth.

In the Art Snap, we look at Sounds and Silences from the early 1980s and I speak about Smith’s progression as an artist, who began his career by dabbling in Social Realism but went on to develop a very different style of work, which focused on giving visual form to sound.

So let’s look at that fascinating output in a little more detail, starting with Mother Bathing Child (1953).

(Image available here: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/mother-bathing-child-201895/search/actor:smith-jack-19282011/sort_by/date_earliest/order/asc/page/1/view_as/grid)

The piece was created when Smith was a member of the Kitchen Sink School, which was influenced by social realism and depicted the lives of the working class. In fact, images like Smith’s gave the movement its name, for the artists took inspiration from their own surroundings. In Smith’s case, subject matter for his early paintings came from the crowded house which he and his family shared with two other artists.

Yet, from the offset, Smith wasn’t necessarily creating work in the spirit of the Kitchen Sink School. He claimed that his work had nothing to do with social comment; it was simply a response to his own surroundings, a celebration the ordinary. So without a specific socio-political outlook, it makes sense that he began to shift his focus to the formal qualities of these everyday scenes.

Shirt in Sunlight (1956) presents a simple still-life of a shirt hanging on a line, but instead of focusing on the realism of the scene, Smith produces a study of light. He has captured the shape the sunlight makes when it streams through the window, and the way this hits the shirt so that some of the martial is almost bleached out. This marks the beginning of a new approach, in which Smith aimed to capture an experience or sensation of reality, which in this case is an experience of light.

(Image available here: https://www.artuk.org/discover/artworks/shirt-in-sunlight-82606/view_as/grid/search/makers:jack-smith-19282011/sort_by/date_earliest/order/asc/page/1)

We can see this idea pushed even further in Smith’s painting Night Sky (1957), in Swindon’s collection. The painting doesn’t represent anything specifically, though it is tempting to see stars and a meteor. Rather the artist means to represent light with dazzling white and blue forms against a dark background of thick brown and black.

This piece is currently on show in Swindon Museum and Art Gallery’s exhibition Pop and Prosperity, which showcases work from the 1960s. Though it was painted in 1957 it reflects a broader shift within British art, which embraced abstraction in the late 1950s and 1960s, much more readily than it had before.

(c) Jack Smith, Night Sky; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

By the time Smith painted Sounds and Silences in the 1980s, his work had undergone a complete transformation. His focus was less on light, and more on how to represent sound. As a result, his painterly style of the 1950s became smooth and measured, dominated by bright colours, angular lines, signs and symbols, which almost seem to have a language of their own.

Sounds and Silences is a special piece in the collection because it represents a space where visual art and music collide, and really makes us think about the many ways we can begin to describe our experiences of the world. 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little journey into Jack Smith’s interesting career. If you’re not quite ready to return home, take a look at our Sounds and Silences Art Burst activity. Yes, they are technically designed for kids, but if you’re a grown up with the time and inclination, why not give it a go?! Or pass it on to a family who might have some fun with it!?

Thank you for reading!

Blogpost by Katie

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