In January 2013, Dutch artist Robert Smit (1941) exhibited drawings from the period 1975 -‘85 and recent prints at the exhibition ‘The Present is the Result of the Past’ (Galerie Locus Solus, Antwerp); also some recent brooches ‘Letters to Madonna delle Dolomiti’ were exhibited. The new work can be observed as a transformation in different techniques and materials of the earlier drawings. One can say that this is Robert Smit all over.
Although he is mainly known for his art jewellery, his work has been directed by drawing continuously.
As a boy Robert Smit attended a technical school for instrument making in his hometown Delft, and at the age of 19 he was repairing jewelry for a jeweller’s shop. In this period he met Zero artist Jan Schoonhoven, whom he visited almost every day, fascinated as he was by his personality, his art, and the jazz music they listened to.
While friends gathered in Schoonhoven’s living room, drinking and discussing movies, literature and art, the artist ‘stood at the table and glued with great calmness his reliefs’ as Smit tells – it left an indelible impression on young Robert Smit. Schoonhoven’s reliefs were made from horizontal and vertical cardboard strips attached on a square wooden plate, and painted monochrome white. The aim of Zero was some kind of tabula rasa in the art, a working from the scratch with a new society and a new aesthetics in mind.
Jan Schoonhoven encouraged Smit to apply for the Staatliche Kunst + Werkschule in Pforzheim (Germany). Although Smit didn’t have the qualifications and had to fix his papers, he was admitted and became a student in the class of Klaus Ullrich. In 1966, he graduated cum laude and returned to the Netherlands. The same year he won a gold medal at the Schmuck exhibition at the International Trade Fair (IHM) in Munich. In 1971 Smit stopped making jewelry.
In Ralph Turner’s 1975 published Contemporary Jewelry book Robert Smit is present in the artists’ statement chapter. We see a portrait of a self-conscious young promising artist, sitting on a chair, photo taken from above, dressed in closely fit shirt and jeans covered with stains, a felt tip pen in his hands. His statement reads: ‘In short: it all happened on a beautiful warm day in May, Ralph, a really great day with a superfabulous happening: the day I sold my goldsmith’s equipment for 2000 guilders.’ 1)
His reasons for stopping jewelry were personal: ‘My idea of what jewelry or an ornament should be had an affinity with the visual arts. So the most obvious thing to do, at that point in time, was to start drawing and painting. I wanted to work for myself, to break with conventional standards, and to be able to do that, I had to stop designing jewelry.’ 2) In this period Smit created jewelry that was anchored in the fine art movements of his time, such as informal art and Zero. This work was not really appreciated by Dutch colleagues and Dutch art institutions that took care of a series of contemporary jewelry exhibitions in the country and abroad. His poetic and tactile work didn’t fit in the newly discovered ‘Dutch school’ of jewelry that was inspired by formal and geometric constructive art, and took serial working – preferably in steel and aluminium – as its method. In stead Smit’s jewelry, either entirely made of gold, or consisting of combinations of acrylic, gold or steel, concentrated on the investigation of the surface and was conceived as one-of. Early work, around 1966, deals with the erosion of the surface but eventually the material treatment became more structured. The punching of rows and fields of small holes, combined with lines of numbers and loose words or letters showed his interest in traces on the surface. From there the step towards drawing was not a big jump.
Besides drawing also painting and photography became his media. He embarked on a research into the properties of drawing, the movements of the pencil, the touch of two different materials emanating from the movement of the hand. With the help of instant photography, a new and exciting artistic device in those days, Smit made a series of Polaroids of different movements of the hand while drawing, and of his hand playing with a pencil. Instant photography was also his last contribution to a jewelry exhibition in this period, the Jewellery in Europe exhibition (1975) curated by Ralph Turner. Smit submitted a series of 205 Polaroid photographs of a man holding two packets of cigarettes on his back, showing ‘synchronous movements of my favourite hand-adornment’ as part of the descriptive title of the work reads. Smit’s work extremely well represented the sub theme of the exhibition ‘an exhibition of progressive work’ but as a matter of fact the progression in Smit’s work was not prompted by jewelry but by fine art.
It was not his intention to become a conceptual jeweller; at that time he had lost interest in jewelry.
In 1978 a series of 10 exhibitions in one year Towards the liberation of drawings at Galerie Orez Mobiel in The Hague, showed that he took his artistic research very serious, taking into account different conditions and a priori givens. All kinds of techniques and methods were explored in an incredible flow of productivity in which the act of drawing was central. Even a hiking tour in Wales turned into an exploration of drawing, an attempt to catch the village of Cwrt by approaching it from different angles while never reaching it. Drawing became a continuous source of making, remaking, copying and reproducing. For 15 years Smit was fascinated by the phenomenon of drawing, resulting in a solo exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1984.
One year later Smit re-entered the jewelry world with the Ornamentum Humanum exhibition at Galerie RA in Amsterdam. At that time he thought ‘nothing could be added to drawing, the research was finished. Miraculously these ideas made it possible to start making jewelry again’. Much has been written about this exhibition not in the last place because it raised a published debate between Rob Smit and Gijs Bakker, which was centred on the issue of gold and the issue of artistic integrity. 3) In those days gold still was a non-accepted material in the radicalized Dutch contemporary jewelry scene, although some young jewellers (s.a. Annelies Planteijdt and Philip Sajet) had cautiously started using it. The Dutch purists did not appreciate Smit’s idiosyncratic use of gold, curled up, creased, serrated, flowing, and oxidized while elaborated with drawings, scratches and imprints. Smit’s material treatment revealed the immense sculptural and artistic properties of 24kt gold, he discovered the material anew. But the debate in the Netherlands was concerned with the future of contemporary jewelry and Gijs Bakker accused Smit of re-establishing jewelry as a status symbol. This time Robert Smit was not taken aback because he had discovered a new trail in his artistic research of rhythm, line, and structure.
From the first series of jewelry in gold, new series developed, oxidized and painted with vibrant colours, in cubes, swirling forms, and plaited compositions. With the Bello series, around 1992, the narrative entered his work. The dog Bello, acting as Smit’s alter ego, brought along with him other actors such as Bello’s sister, and the innocent young girl Lili, her doll, the fat man and the workingwoman, characters inspired by a comic strip but phantasms at the same time. Together they formed a narrative, like a sequence of stills from a movie that still had to be made – open to interpretation, to anyone’s imagination. Some of these pieces showed how Smit, while under the spell of gold, at the same time tried to break its magic by covering it under layers of paint. In 2004 he expressed his fascination for gold: ‘It cannot be compared to any other material, the strength of colour and tone, the intensity. If I make an alloy – I always do this myself – it is incredibly exciting to see if it has the colour I wished. The tonality of gold is so immense, so rich, I can work with that the rest of my life.’
During these years drawing and painting remained important, though somewhat concealed to the outside world because they were rather supportive. Around 2004 he started re-working drawings he made 25 years earlier – the Cwrt drawings, notations of landscapes, roads, impressions and places in Wales. These drawings were made in a period of great artistic activity, in 1978 the year he had 10 exhibitions of drawings, and as a matter of fact he had never properly finished the Cwrt series. Now he started to work on this, in studies on paper, and with the help of collages. This helped him to find out how a drawing, that looked like an allotment, might occur as a piece of jewelry. He created a series of large gold pendants, which showed compositions consisting of small bits of painted gold, silver and lead scattered over a square field of glowing and scratched gold. These pendants worked like two-dimensional works of art, illustrating that the body is not Smit’s first motive for making jewelry: ‘I’ve never had the feeling that my jewelry should connect with the body. Whether it is on a table, in a museum, or on the wall – it is equal to me. Besides that jewelry should be examined in your hands, like drawings. The people who are wearing my jewelry enter into a connection with me. It can be rather confronting, it is never noncommittal, as an artist you loose your control.’ This must be rather disturbing for an artist who tends to keep his other artwork, the drawings and prints, to later rework them if he feels there is a need for it, if there is more to express for instance.
The need to tell is the motor of his work. Stories pop up continuously: stories about Bello the dog, the encounter of Erasmus with Thomas Moore, and Madonna delle Dolomiti – a mysterious woman with an exquisite voice. On a nocturnal drive through the Dolomites, Smit heard her crystal-clear voice sing an Italian folksong on the car radio. It was just a short moment in time, enough to get under the spell of her voice; in his imagination he makes the drive again and again to feel the same enchantment. ‘This is what’s it all about. This is the way I want to create art. (…) From now on I want to design jewelry that shares the same incomprehensible brilliance, that partakes of the same ineffable clarity. This brilliance, this clarity, is the essence of all art to me.’ 4) The Madonna delle Dolomiti as the epitome of beauty, became a source of inspiration.
In the same period Smit started investigating digital technology as an artistic tool by drawing on the computer, and printing with a professional Epson printer – on paper, and on inappropriate materials such as wood and gold. It took him quite a while to develop a method to adapt ink to gold via a layer of paint. The first results were shown in the exhibition Madonna delle Dolomiti (Galerie Louise Smit, 2008), where jewellery was shown alongside computerdrawings. According to Smit ‘the possibilities of digital drawing are immense. Drawing with a pencil on a tablet is lovely, it is another experience, much faster and manipulative. It is not about indolence, your effort is the same but you can react faster with the computer. I can spend days behind the computer until the image doesn’t change essentially, it is a continuous dialogue with the image.’ Again he is re-using drawings in another context, besides using the letters he has been writing for quite some time addressed to the imaginary Madonna delle Dolomiti. Smit: ‘I think I have become too much encapsulated in jewelry. I want to have it in balance, drawing and jewelry – it is so close to each other.’ Sometime they merge and sometime they go their own way – together they are the essence of his art.
Article by Liesbeth den Besten / Metalsmith / March 2013