Collector's dossier: John Firth-Smith's voyage - Art Collector

Issue 57, July - September 2011

Boats are metaphors for many things but first and foremost they are vehicles, a way to get places. Painter John Firth-Smith talks to Ashley Crawford about his journey so far.

John Firth-Smith has become Australia’s semi-official painter of the sea. He has returned to this subject unerringly, finding myriad ways to depict his muse. Remarkably, given the repetition of subject matter, one thing Firth-Smith cannot be accused of is repetition when it comes to painting. In show after show since his first solo exhibition in 1966, Firth-Smith has found ways to belie any sense of cliché in his subject matter.

While he began as an essentially abstract expressionist painter, it didn’t take long for an element of figuration to creep into his works. He eschewed the styles that washed up like flotsam around him, ignoring the tides of minimalism, conceptualism and postmodernism and stayed the course regardless of fashionability. Rightly famed for his surging seascapes over the years, he is an artist who, while remaining faithful to his watery subject, has never allowed it to drown him.

As with the ocean itself, there is a degree of unpredictability in Firth-Smith’s approach. In his most recent paintings his marine forms swell in sinuous and sensual line work. There are hints of the extraordinary bounty of the ocean, the searing blood-red sunsets and the surging tides. Morse code, navigation by the constellations and the curse of the black albatross in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner are all wind for his sails. The sea has inspired many stories and Firth-Smith has come up with his own.

Born in 1943 in Melbourne, it didn’t take long for the restless soul in Firth-Smith to take over. Before long he was traversing the globe – by boat, by foot, by car – anything that could move him along. He travelled through New Zealand, Europe, the United States, Samoa, Malaysia, West Africa, Easter Island, Mexico, Egypt, the Fiji Islands, Ireland and elsewhere, all the while filling the ships-hold of his mind with images to translate to canvas.

Flying in the face of fashion in the 1980s and 1990s, as the art around him became more and more conceptual, Firth-Smith became more and more visceral. The earth’s key elements, most particularly water and air, became the key alchemical ingredients in works that became increasingly epic, both in subject and scale.

Firth-Smith himself is a big man with a rapturous and infectious appetite for life. His physicality is reflected in his canvases, in the gigantic poetic sweep of his waveforms, as though he is building a religious iconography to Poseidon himself, a calligraphic homage to the god of the sea. At times his waves become ghost-like wraiths or a moment of orgasmic spray. His work is a clear celebration of life and the frailty of this mortal coil in the face of the epic mood swings of the ocean. At times Firth-Smith makes clear the sheer brute harshness of the elements in bleak but beautiful pictures capturing the dark mood of the waters, that ominous dark blue that heralds an impending storm – a time that no sailor relishes.

Firth-Smith has spent a considerable part of the last two years residing on his property in Hill End in rural New South Wales, no short hike from the water. But spending time in the bush barely impacts on his work per se. “It’s not about location. It’s not about Hill End or Sydney Harbour,” he says. “It’s what’s in your head, it’s more a metaphor for a state of mind.”

“My father died when I was very young and I was sent to boarding school which was very regimented. I ended up running away to the bush and spent some time as a jackaroo and got to know horses well and, when you think about it, a boat is not unlike a horse – they can both be flighty, they both have a mind of their own and they both never stop moving.”

Firth-Smith returned to his studio in Sydney in June this year to consolidate his next body of work for his upcoming solo exhibition in Melbourne, but his time in Hill End has clearly made him introspective about the way the world has changed. “I’ve been going up to Hill End since the 1960s,” he says. “Back then there were blackberries with trunks the size of power poles and there were shotguns leaning against the wall. Now it’s all swimming pools and luxury apartments. It’s just like the harbour where once you could go down to where they were building the tugs – the world has changed and it does make you nostalgic.”

“I think John’s enduring appeal is that people simply love the drama of the paint,” says Firth-Smith’s Melbourne dealer John Buckley. “They love the way he pushes and pulls the paint around and he does it with great bravado. Australians love the long horizontals with their suggestion of the horizon and of course the sea itself is also an enduring passion.”

As Buckley notes: “Australians still love landscape painting, even if the rest of the world doesn’t, and John is simply a damned good old-fashioned painter. There’s still a market for his work. Since we’ve been showing him [since 2007] we’ve had enormous success. It’s always amazed me that the Art Gallery of New South Wales have never held a major retrospective of his work.”

Firth-Smith once commented to writer Sasha Grishin that painting is a “strange and unknown thing, like sailing – you prepare yourself for the worst and the good will look after itself.” But unlike when he is sailing, in his paintings Firth-Smith takes tsunami-like risks. There are almost anarchic moments of shape, form and colour in these works, as though the studio canvas is being buffeted by wind and sea spray, the artist struggling against the maverick tendencies of his subject.

The sensuality of Firth-Smith’s line work could suggest the feminine in its curves and its unpredictability. Ernest Hemingway perhaps captured the soul of this notion in his novella The Old Man and the Sea when he wrote: “But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.”

In a 1979 interview with the painter James Gleeson, conducted for the archives of the National Gallery of Australia, Firth-Smith attempted to articulate his love of the water. “There’s a certain sound of the water and lapping and serenity at night when it’s dark but it’s glistening and so on. I could just sit there and look at it for hours, you see. So somehow, even though I like the country very much, there’s that thing of being surrounded by hills or something, or the limitation is as far as you can see, which is that hill over there, or if you’re out in the Western Plains it’s sort of miles away. But somehow with the water there’s this lovely opposite thing happening between the lapping and the slurping noises, and the tide going up and down and a few hours later it’s lower and there’s constant change and it can be grey and menacing one day and sparkling and blue the next. There’s always a sort of lovely change.”

As John Buckley notes, Firth-Smith is, at heart, an old fashioned painter. But his enduring popularity and consistent sales suggest that, while there may be a considerable number of hip up-and-coming artists on the market, a bit of old-fashioned paintwork can still go a long way. Perhaps the answer to that slight conundrum is in the simple fact that he has never repeated himself, finding segues in his subject – from Morse code to mirages and blazing sunsets – that never allow his canvases to settle into a rut.

New work by John Firth-Smith will be exhibited at John Buckley Gallery in Melbourne from 7 September to 1 October 2011.

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