This essay incorporates details kindly passed on by Michael Smither and Kevin and Levanah Croon.
Levanah and Jacqui Croon on the beach with Michael Smither, 1977, during Smither’s stay with the Croon’s
to paint ‘Kevin Croon Playing Chess’ (Lot 20).
These four highly characteristic paintings by Michael Smither were bought in New Zealand in the 1970s, mostly at Peter McLeavey Gallery in Wellington, and taken to Fremantle, Western Australia, in 1979 by an emigrating Kiwi family, Kevin and Levanah Croon. They are a kind of time capsule of the artist’s work in the mid-1970s: one of his most productive and accomplished periods. The works have not been seen in this country since they were first made and sold, enhancing the sense they collectively provide of fresh discovery or rediscovery.
The Croons lived in Lower Hutt in the 1970s. They owned a Civil Engineering Company, operating in Wellington and Otago, which they successfully ran together. Levanah was also Secretary of the Landlords Association, of which Bob Jones was the Chairman. Levanah had always been interested in art and, through Jones, she started attending auctions at Dunbar Sloane and visiting Peter McLeavey Gallery in Cuba Street. She especially admired the vibrant colours and representational clarity of Michael Smither’s and Michael Illingworth’s work. The Croons got to know Smither well and Levanah commissioned him to paint Kevin’s portrait for a birthday present in 1977. The artist came to like the Croons very much and stayed with them for five weeks while working on the portrait; he finished it at home in New Plymouth (Kevin came for sittings) and incorporated in the work a fragment of Kevin’s favourite painting by Smither, Rocks with Mountain (now in Auckland Art Gallery)1. However, he replaced the red tractor that appears in the original painting with one of Kevin’s J.C.B Excavators.
Made between 1973 and 1978, the Croons’ four works by Smither all belong to the period after the artist’s return from several years in Central Otago and Dunedin, where he held The Frances Hodgkins Fellowship at the University of Otago in 1970, sharing a studio with Ralph Hotere and the young Jeffrey Harris. During this time, he grew greatly in confidence, maturity and sophistication. He was accompanied in Otago by his wife, poet Elizabeth Smither, and their two children Sarah and Thomas, later joined by Joseph. His family and domestic scenarios were one focus of Smither’s art; another was the Otago landscape, viewed partly through lenses supplied by Rita Angus and Colin McCahon.
Back in New Plymouth and with a new studio (Mount View), Smither resumed painting domestic scenes, many involving his children, kitchen still lifes (fish, fruit, kitchen equipment and vessels), portraits of family and friends, the Taranaki landscape (as dominated by Mount Taranaki and the stony beaches), plus occasional biblical pieces, swimmers, dolphins and colour abstractions related to music – a formidable array of potential topics and modes. Also in this decade, Smither’s first marriage ended, he became active in political and environmental issues, and he began writing music. Four different ‘genres’ are represented by the works in this ‘time capsule’ and all are modes in which Smither had worked already: 1) domestic narrative (Thomas with Coloured Block)’; 2) still life (Walnuts in Blue Bowl); 3) portraiture (Kevin Croon Playing Chess); and 4) landscape/marine (Blue Bottle Jellyfish at Back Beach).
Michael Smither, ‘Thomas with Coloured Block’,
oil on hardboard, 1973, 720mm x 520mm.
Estimate $65,000 – $85,000
Charles Brasch said of one of Smither’s family paintings (now in the Hocken Collections as part of the Brasch bequest) that it reminded him of early Florentine painters such as Giotto; this remark hints at what makes such paintings so memorable. The events are commonplace; in Thomas with Coloured Block, for instance, the child is gazing at a piece of painted wood, an expression of studied concentration on his face. But Smither’s treatment dignifies such occasions and simultaneously imbues them with comic pathos. What they are not, in any way, is cute or sentimental. Interesting, too, is the way in which colour is handled.
The background (wall and floor) is evenly split between orange and off-white, making a perfect abstract painting all on its own, with which the child’s figure harmonises. The only really bright tones are on the piece of wood – in yellow and red, it is the focal point of the composition. The colours, incidentally, incorporate the artist’s experiments with colour harmonies and their relationships with music. Common to these domestic paintings is Smither’s choice of just the right moment at which to freeze the action; he is a painter using the tricks of a photographer but making the image monumental.
Michael Smither, ‘Walnuts in Blue Bowl’ oil on hardboard,
1975, 770mm x 730mm. Estimate $65,000 – $85,000
Walnuts in Blue Bowl depends, for its immediate effect, on scalar disjunction; magnifying walnuts in a bowl to many times their normal size makes us see them strangely and freshly in all their wrinkled glory. They even take on a slightly surreal dimension as if they were suddenly to appear as wrinkled heads or brains in a bottle.
Michael Smither, ‘Kevin Croon Playing Chess’, oil on hardboard,
1977, 1200mm x 1100mm. Estimate $120,000 – $180,000
Kevin Croon Playing Chess is a tour de force of painterly technique. The way all the elements of the picture fit together – the chess set, the red table, the figure of Kevin, the chair in which he sits, the wrinkled carpet underfoot, the painting on the wall – is masterly. Notice, too, that each item is at an odd angle in relation to everything else, as if the sideways angle of the sitter’s posture rendered everything else in the image slightly skew-whiff.
Michael Smither, ‘Blue Bottle Jellyfish at Back Beach’,
oil on hardboard, 1977, 1480mm x 1100mm.
Estimate $45,000 – $65,000
Blue Bottle Jellyfish at Back Beach introduces into painting the unfamiliar creature of a bluebottle (technically not a jellyfish but a siphonophore), which can deliver a painful sting. Apart from the creature itself, hovering at the centre of the picture, all else is water and its surface agitation. The treatment of the water is highly stylised and rhythmical. It’s a seductive picture but draws us into something disturbing, dangerous.
This time capsule of Smither in the seventies is a perfect little mini-exhibition of a painter, at the height of his powers, performing all his usual tricks and doing them brilliantly. The four works are like the movements of a string quartet; each one different and complete in itself but all contributing to the total effect. It’s good to have such fine pictures back in the country.
1. Michael Smither, Rocks with Mountian, aucklandartgallery.com