Ismael Smith: The artist’s extraordinary life



(Photos via the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya.)

One of the temporary exhibits I walked through at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya was dedicated to Ismael Smith, an illustrator and sculptor who began his career in Barcelona but died in an asylum in White Plains, NY, in the 1970s.

The biographical blurbs on the wall at “Ismael Smith: Beauty and Monsters” were so fascinating, I found myself snapping photos of the text just to make sure I remembered everything correctly. Ready to read about an extraordinary life?

Ismael Smith

Ismael Smith’s “Flirting, Good Fail,” 1914.
(Click image to learn more from MNAC.)

After a promising start illustrating satirical and fashion magazines in Catalonia, Smith’s style begins to change. His new works center on “sexuality and mysticism”—he’s obsessed with the character of Salomé and her role in the death of John the Baptist, for one. And when he illustrates bullfights, his works aren’t the typical celebration of valiant toreadors; the bulls are almost always winning and the horses are often the biggest victims, as in the illustration above right.

He moves to America briefly and begins doing more sculptural portraits with an “unconventional aesthetic,” like the ones at the top of the post. He’s also sometimes portraying men and women in gender-fluid outfits and situations, which doesn’t sit well with the conservative Spanish art scene. He isn’t welcomed warmly when he returns to Catalonia in 1926.

In 1929, Smith submits a piece to the Sacred Heart of Jesus International Contest, which opened the Barcelona International Exposition of 1929. His work causes a scandal; the museum describes it as “a ‘queer’ image, with a gay, mannered aesthetic, for which he was almost excommunicated.” The artwork is not just turned down but abandoned in the port of Barcelona—as in, probably dumped in the seawater.

In 1941 Smith moves with his mother and family—all five brothers live together, to the point where when one eventually marries, the family ignores the new bride—to a mansion in Irvington, New York. In 1946 his mother dies and the following year his elder brother is murdered by the Mafia.

“Manola,” a 1907 illustration
by Ismael Smith.

Meanwhile, Smith has given up on art and devotes himself to amateur research into a cure for cancer, which has claimed the life of another brother.

From 1951–1954, he’ll see one sister and another brother die … before the brother can follow through on plans to purchase a building in Sitges for Ismael and the family to own and display artwork. (The building eventually is instead purchased by the city of Sitges, and today is the Maricel Museum.)

By 1960, Smith is arrested after his neighbors complain about his “nudist activities.” One of his remaining brothers commits him, against his will, to the Bloomington Insane Asylum in White Plains. He returns to art, making masks of some of the nurses and fellow inmates, but is abandoned by the art world; letters he send go unanswered. He begins shipping off all of his works to various museums, unsolicited, and eventually dies in 1972.

It was a pretty intense walk-through, and video installations at the exhibit show the scope and scale of many of Smith’s pieces that were abandoned or lost … whether accidentally or, in the case of more morbid pieces, accidentally-on-purpose. (It’s always a little jarring for me to realize that artists who were working at the turn of the 20th century were around to be captured on photographs and even film.) I’m glad I ventured off the museum’s beaten path and into the temporary galleries for the afternoon.


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