Thursday, 2 March 2017

Energising art

We’ve visited many great art exhibitions these past few months. The most energising of them was that of the young South African painter and sculptor Lionel Smit we saw at the Didrichsen Art Museum in Helsinki in January. 

The artist is only in his mid-30s but he is already something of a star in his home country. In recent years, his fabulous colourful works have also gained international acclaim including sell-out exhibitions in London and Hong Kong. It is easy to see why.

The Helsinki Exhibition entitled Faces of Identity consisted of soulful paintings and sculptures of faces and heads, both big and small. Lionel’s fascination with the face sort of grew on him at home. He was exposed to art very early as his father Anton Smit is a sculptor who primarily created, and still creates, faces and big heads in his studio that was adjacent to their home.

In his early teens, Lionel was planning to become a sculptor, too. However, when he was 16 his parents separated. He suddenly had the studio all to himself and started to utilise it for painting. He has continued with both painting and sculpture also since art school with an individual and inventive touch of his own on both. He likes to work on his paintings as he would with a sculpture, adding layer after layer until he is happy with the result. And he likes the surface of his sculptures to have painting-like texture resembling the strokes of a paint brush.

Large Malay Girl, resin & fibreglass with automotive paint.

Lionel Smit was born and raised in Pretoria. He later moved to Cape Town. The Cape Malay community in the new surroundings turned out to be an endless source of artistic inspiration for an Afrikaner. He has been exploring identity ever since portraying the local mixed-race women of African, European and Southeast Asian origin he meets on the streets there. For him portraiture is not that much about a specific person but rather a study into the multifaceted formation of identity in the globalised world.

I particularly loved the large bright-coloured canvases. As the Didrichsen Art Museum is a 1960s gallery extension to a home built in the 1950s for the owners of a trading company, a few smaller-sized paintings and sculptures were placed in the home-like interior of the present lobby and library. The building is an artwork in its own right designed in every little detail by the Finnish architect Viljo Revell, whose best-known international design is the Toronto City Hall.

A typical Smit model must be quite an eyeful to provoke such strikingly beautiful pieces. The large ‘coin-coated’ bronze head with a little hat of snow at the entrance to the building, for example, was simply astonishing. In fact, it was a sculpture by none less than Henry Moore that had been moved elsewhere to give the most prominent place in the museum’s sculpture garden to this stunning beauty.

The Helsinki exhibition closed a month ago. A new one under the same title was opened at the Everard Read London gallery last week. Should you be around I would recommend a visit to 80 Fulham Road by 25 March. The not that lucky ones will have to settle for the 16-minute documentary on the artist under this link. Either way, I can guarantee you will be energised.

I am linking this post to Paint Monthly of the Coastal Ripples blog.


  1. Oh how I wish I'd seen this post before I left London yesterday. His work is very inspiring. Love the sculpted faces and his wonderful use of blue and yellow. I'm off to click on the link and find out more. Thanks for joining in again this month. There are quite a few contributions this time which is great. B x

    1. I'm so sorry you missed the London exhibition. I only found out about it yesterday when preparing the post. Hopefully there will be other shows in London before too long. The previous one held there took place in 2014.