Visual Arts Iain Gale SIR MATTHEW SMITH The Barbican, London: REVIEW

Writing of Matthew Smith in 1953, the young Francis Bacon expressed his admiration for "one of the very few English painters since Constable and Turner to be concerned with painting". There is more here than the formalist compliment might lead one to expect, a fact which becomes evident while walking through the Barbican's vast show of Smith's work. Apart from a few landscapes, Smith's entire life was spent painting just two subjects: the still life and the nude. This twin obsession suggests that it was more than mere painterliness which attracted Bacon to the septuagenarian. Both men shared a belief in the single subject - Bacon with the twisted face, the tortured body, the screaming Pope; Smith with the languorous nudes whose emphatic sensuality pumps at us in skeins of hot red and orange from every wall of this exhibition.

Smith appears as a paradox. Outwardly he was a fastidious, even fogeyish character in sensible tweeds; a devoted family man who on the wartime death of his second son would stare for hours out to sea. Yet, given a paintbrush, this man would produce works of an unconfined passion unseen since the blatant hedonism of Gauguin or the German Expressionists.

Smith had come late to art, entering the Slade at 26 and being mocked for his age by the great Tonks. It is hardly surprising that as soon as he was able he moved to France - to Gauguin's village of Pont-Aven, little changed since the 1890s. It was here and at Matisse's school in Paris that Smith learnt his art and, back in Fitzrovia in 1914, he was content with his label of English Fauve. But nothing in these exercises in modernist colourism suggests the painterly violence which was to erupt in his work from the 1920s and it seems likely that his experience of the horror of the Great War, in which he was wounded and shell-shocked, had a profound effect.

It is not too fanciful to suppose that, having experienced at first-hand the full power of man's ability to destroy, Smith determined that his art should at least present a testimony to the enduring power of creation. In his two persistent themes, flowers and female nudes, Smith expresses an inspiring fascination with nature and, in the full fecundity of the latter, with the very essence of human life itself.

n To 23 July (details: 0171-588 9023)

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