Interview / Joanne Olivier
Original Art / Frans Smit
I love art. I studied it in Primary School and then learnt some more about art from some really artistic like people at Rhodes University. I am not an artist myself although I have fancied myself a painter. My mom and dad still have an old painting I did of the Fool On The Hill (Beatles) hanging in their study. Caroline Captain is the main arty in this blog love affair, but it does not mean I don’t appreciate it or have my very special obsessions. I’m a massive fan of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. Perhaps this is why one of my new favourite artists is South African Frans Smit.
I started following him on Instagram and really thought he was some fancy International artist until I realised he actually lives in Cape Town. Attending the Turbine Art Fair this year, my pants almost dropped when I saw a full sized original Frans Smit in all its glory hanging up for sale for a mere 53 000 Rand. I had been sipping on fancy cocktails and fine Sauvignon Blancs throughout the whole day, so I actually started to make plans to purchase this coveted piece. I will have to save up and drink some more wine for the next exhibit I attend.
Frans’ new series SILENCE is a “Vibrant take on the traditional portrait”. Vibrant is an understatement. His portraits are vicious paint dances across people’s faces, no eyes, no mouths, just a passionate blend and splatter of tortured emotion. Very Francis Bacon like, I am drawn to it like I am drawn to the idea of sipping Absinthe with Rimbaud and Verlaine in a bar in Amsterdam in the 1800’s.
I tracked Frans down via the internet and his Instagram and asked him how the hell he has got so famous, with exhibitions in San Francisco and the like and being mentored by the REAL Lucian Freud.
Your career started out with photography as a medium – what was the journey you took towards painting?
I’ve always been making art from a young age. I used to come back from school and be in my room painting watercolors or making sculptures. I had a gallery I supplied with my sculptures when I was still in High school, when I went to University I stopped making art. I still remember the gallery contacting my mom asking for more work, but I never made more.
After studying science for two years, I decided to do something more creative. I studied photography, I loved it. When I finished I went to London. In London I did some part time art courses. The longest was a year course at the Chelsea College of art and design. I also did an etching course, and a figurative painting course at Central St. Martins. It was amazing to have all the museums and art galleries at your doorstep. I used to spend all my off days going to them – Something I really miss living in Cape Town.
I shared a house with about 6 other people. My bedroom was on the 2nd floor in the corner. TINY. I use to stand in front of the mirror with the canvas in my arm painting. Mostly self-portraits. I still have one of them at home.
I hear you were mentored by Lucian Freud? This is incredible? How did you meet him and what sort of mentoring did he give you? What did you take away as the main inspiration from him?
When I moved to London (initially for 6 months) I got a job in a food shop/deli. (Sally Clarkes) It was in Kensington, a very up market borough.I didn’t know who Lucian Freud was at the time. He lived 3 doors down and came in every morning for breakfast. He had the same order every morning, a pot of tea and an Almond and raisin croissant. I became friendly with him over the 4 years of working there. He would bring me newspaper articles and sometimes sneak in a photo of a painting he finished, I sometimes ran errands for him. Afterwards I would go to his house and he will pour me a glass of wine, he would call it “ancient wine”, it was older than what I was at that time probably. He would show me around the studio and what he was working on. He didn’t like to have paint on the floor, so he would flip the extra paint onto his studio wall. That was a masterpiece in itself. I still remember the first time I saw it, I couldn’t wait to call a friend afterwards and describe it to her. I once asked him about using photographs to paint from, his response to me was “ I tried it once, it didn’t work for me, but it’s only the end result that matters”. That was enough confirmation for me to start using photographs as reference. He had a big retrospect exhibition at the Tate in 2003. He gave me 2 tickets to the VIP opening night. It was amazing; I took my friend Caroline with me. We would be standing looking at a painting, and then you would be standing next to John Malkovich and at the next piece Jerry Hall. It was very overwhelming.When the show came to a close about three months late, I wanted to go see it again. I mentioned it to Lucian, He told me that the queues are very long at the moment, so he phoned the Tate and organized for me to go for free and skip the queue. I felt very special I must admit!
Your latest Exhibition Silence is quite different from your previous stuff, and it seems you have found your real calling and passion? What inspired Silence?
I was in London beginning of last year for an exhibition. I went to all the top galleries around Mayfair and Soho. The one day I was on my own and ended up in the Lazarides Gallery. There I saw a piece by the Miaz Brothers. I was totally blown away. There I got the idea to reference masters as subject matter. I had to interpret it in my own way of course. I played around with the idea for a while before I “revealed” it so to speak.
The response has been great. I still like to do my normal abstract portraits; there is a big demand for them. I’m currently working on a commission for a client in New York.
Are you a fan of Francis Bacon? I do see hints of this in your work?
Yes I love Bacon’s work. There is actually a book of him lying on my desk constantly. also Auerbach and Freud of course. I like to page through them every now and then, maybe read a bit. Funny that they also knew each other.Bacon has a real organic flow to his work and he was brutal with the brush, something I also like. I get a real rush when I work and get to throw paint onto the canvas.
Is there a meaning or message behind the warped paint faces with no features?
Not really, I guess they are my interpretation in an abstract way. Sometimes it works, other times not so much. But what is great is that everyone sees something different. I’ve had pieces that I thought were awful, and then there are 3 buyers fighting over who want it..
You recently exhibited in San Francisco and London? Where else is your artwork for sale?
Yes, I was invited to participate in a show at the Mirus Gallery in San Francisco. They contacted me a couple of months before. I was also part of a show in Denmark in March. The Wolfsen Gallery in Aalborg is one of the galleries that represent me. I had a show (Trumpomania) In NY at the same time, but chose to go to Denmark.I also have a Gallery in London I work with, The Maddox Gallery in Mayfair.I also work with Curator 19.90 that is run by Viktoria Latesheva, and she has a group of curators she works with. Melissa McCaig-Welles (USA), Rasmus Fischer (Denmark) Mateo Mize (USA), Charlotte Hamson (Canada)
Some of your pieces are going for upwards of R45 000. What sort of prices were you selling at when you started painting and how did you get to this stage, as an aspiration to young artists?
When I started out, I was too shy to ask for money for my work, I used to just tell people they could have it. Putting a price to your work comes with confidence. Painting is like any art form, the more you practice the better you get, the better you get the more you can charge.People often ask me how long it takes to do a piece It depends, but when you say a week, they often respond, “WOW and you charge that much? They don’t take into account the ten years that I spent practicing and developing my style, where I had to live hand to mouth, month to month. It didn’t happen over night.
The portraits are beautifully tortured. What inspired this series and do you have to be in a certain Mood to paint and create?
It might not look that way, but the torturing bit is the hardest part. I appreciate realistic paintings, I myself like to work realistic in parts, but there is something extraordinary for me in abstract portraits. It really speaks to me. It moves me.. like something warm inside. I can sometimes take days to work myself up to the point where I do the abstract parts in the paintings.. and even if it might take only an hour or so, it really invigorates me and it can be draining at the same time.
How many tubes of paint do you go through creating one of your masterpieces?
White is probably the one I use the most of. For a large painting I can go through about 4- 5 tubes of paint – large tubes of 200ml each, about 800ml – 1l of paint.
What kind of advice do you have for aspiring SA artists?
I think being a South African artist has some advantages at this point in time. Especially with the new Zeitz Mocca opening next month. Cape Town will be seen as the African art capital from now one. It will have huge tourist pulling power.
Get yourself a gallery that you feel comfortable with. It is important to have a good relationship with your art dealer.
Also explore other avenues. There are so many online opportunities these days. Do your own social media, Facebook, Instagram, these are great tools to get the world to see your work. If you don’t go out there and show it to people, no one is going to know about it. Be fierce and confident.
Did you go to the opening of the San Fran Exhibition and if so how was that for you?
No I didn’t go. I just followed it on their Instagram
Do you have any ideas for the next work or is it a continuation of Silence for now?
I have the solo exhibition coming up next year May. I will keep doing what I’m doing now, but with a twist, just to keep the work fresh. I have some ideas in the back of my head, will play around and see where it goes. I still have some time before I have to get down and dirty!
Follow Frans’ Work on Instagram – @fransmit
Online at http://franssmit.co.za/