Often complaining and usually selfish

BY ANDREW MOTION MATTHEW SMITH: His Life and Reputation by Malcolm Yorke, Faber pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
Malcolm Yorke closes this, "the first full-scale biography of the painter Matthew Smith", with an Epilogue which looks at his standing today. Nicholas Serota, the Director of the Tate, sums things up: "Smith's reputation is secure, but perhaps not advancing. He occupies a unique place within early and mid-20th-century British art in his response to the School of Paris. His singular approach to the human form, to still life and the use of colour left him, perhaps, in a more isolated position than artists like Sickert or Bomberg."

One of the strengths of Yorke's book is to show how stubbornly Smith worked to create and then exploit this isolation. Born in 1897, the third son of a wealthy Halifax wire manufacturer, he spent his childhood feeling uncomfortable about his comfortable circumstances - and later accused his (actually rather cultured and supportive) father of being mean and narrowly Victorian in his tastes. The intention, clearly, was to distance himself - to become a painter who was also a free spirit, unencumbered by emotional debts.

He took an exceptionally long time proving that his ambitions were more than a whim. As a student at the Art Department of the Manchester Municipal School of Trade (which Lowry also attended), and then at the Slade (Yorke is good on the influence of Henry Tonks, his tutor), the best that can be said is that he worked fastidiously. Most of the juvenilia was later destroyed or mislaid, but by all accounts it was as remarkable as he seemed himself. Yorke defends Smith's dedication, but the abiding impression is of a whingeing hypochondriac, someone who was very well able to receive but not much good at giving, and who was disabled by the thought that - culturally speaking - he was living "at the turn of the tide".

Love (for Gwen Salmond, whom he later married and later still left) and France (for which he felt a more durable affection) saved the day. With the former he discovered the pleasures of the flesh; in the latter he found allegiances (with Gauguin, Matisse, the impressionists in general) which released him from the tyranny of orthodoxy. Alden Brooks, whose important friendship also began around this time, felt that Smith was still "Rather browbeaten", "dull", and "fussy", but also found him "very shy and secretive". That "secretive" turned out to be the vital element. Smith had a plan.

Like all plans, its success depended on ungovernable externals, as well as self-will. In 1913-4, Smith produced his first good paintings: pieces like Lilies and Flowers in a Green Vase which, though derivative, treat colour with exuberance and perspective with playfulness. Yet no sooner had his talent begun to emerge than life clobbered it down again. Or rather, seemed to clobber it. In fact the death of his father in 1914, and his experiences in the war (he was badly wounded), quickened his involvement with the world even as they destabilised it. The landscapes he painted in Cornwall during the early Twenties are powerfully depressed, yet defiant in their relish for experience. Their purple-blue skies, garish red trees, and inky shadows are at once terrible and tremendous.

As Smith's gloom lifted he began painting the nudes which remain his best-known and most- admired works. The ambiguous mood of the earthly landscapes transformed into a much more straightforward enjoyment of female forms. His women are big-breasted and unself-conscious, churning on their divans so as to seem ambiguously aroused: sleepy but impatient. Inevitably, they raise disturbing questions about the dominance of the male gaze, and about their role as fantasy figures. Raise them, and then dismiss them by insisting that the pleasures they describe are self-contained. We enjoy the paintings because the women are enjoying themselves so much.

Smith didn't have his first one-man show until 1926, when he was 46. But once he had found himself, he held on fast. He diversified into portraits and developed his interest in still lives, until his death in 1959, yet his determination to think about women "in colour not line" remained constant. In Yorke's account this feels impressive, and when we are reminded of the many beautiful images that Smith produced, the biography is correspondingly entertaining. When Yorke is dealing with Smith the man, however, things are more complicated. As the hail-storm of events rained down on him, nothing seemed seriously to alter the personality he had formed as a boy: not the turmoil of his love life, nor the death of his two sons in the Second World War, not the trials of fame and the tribulations of reputation, not the interesting friendships (with Dahl, Epstein, Bacon). Right up to the end, Smith was often complaining and usually selfish - as though only by remaining at a myopic distance from life could he insist so memorably on its pleasures. Oh dear. It means that by the last page of Yorke's conscientious account, a nasty question is beginning to circle. By expelling veiled Melancholy from his temple of delight, did Smith sell delight short?