Robert Smit

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.