For the second edition of the See All This – Pretty Brilliant series, author Alice Albinia wrote: ‘Women will always tell stories.’ Something we were constantly reminded of, while making these issues, with the recurring question: How do you discover stories that have not yet been shared or told? How can we make visible what remained hidden for a long time? We know the stories of artists like Luchita Hurtado and Carmen Herrera who spent their lives being overlooked by the art world because the value of their work was not seen. With our Pretty Brilliant edition and online, we introduce you to artists we discovered along the way. Editor Emma Clarkson spoke to one of them: Godelieve Giovan Smelt.
This week I sat with Godelieve Giovan Smelt (1951) who has, throughout her venturesome life, produced an immense body of work that shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon. She shares with me brilliant fragments of her life’s story, from her formative travels hitchhiking to Afghanistan and Pakistan in her late teens before her admittance to the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam to the period spent as part of an artist collective, named Edelweiss, living and working in a deserted town in the Spanish pyrenees. Despite a lack of encouragement, and at times plain discouragement, Smelt has pursued a life full of art and has never looked back. She has, she tells me, as a result of the many strict patriarchal structures she experienced during her youth, long ago decided to do so without the involvement of, or a dependence on, men.
As she takes me through her oeuvre it’s apparent that Smelt is highly sensitive to the life happening to and around her. Trawling through seas of memories and experiences, spanning as far back as early childhood, all of her work is centred around her own experiences. When asked whether she has ever deviated from using herself as a subject Smelt replies: “I have always drawn and painted about myself. The starting point is life itself which lives inside me. In my brain, I am the only starting point. I always return to myself. I can’t do otherwise, I can’t know the other person. It’s not that I don’t care, but I can’t know them”.
Smelt informs me that if her work should have any influences then they would be Hergé, the cartoonist behind the Tintin comics, and Charlotte Salomon, the german painter who illustrated her own inner life before her premature death at the hand of the Nazi’s in 1943. “I think she can draw better” She tells me, referring to Salomon. “She could really put down a figure and almost touch it. I create more distance in my form of drawing because it’s quite raw, with a tight line. That’s the delineation I like. I think making a line is the most beautiful thing.”
The autobiographical thread of her work occasionally lends itself to the stories of other women. Real and imagined women alike. Like her namesake Saint Godelieve, an 11th century lord’s daughter who was abused and ultimately murdered by her husband and his family, to whose chronicle she has dedicated a twelve part artwork. Or Saint Sebastiana the invented female counterpart of Saint Sebastian who was martyred in a flood of arrows. Smelt painted the walls of a small church in an abandoned pyrenean town with the chronicle of Saint Sebastiana and posed within its ambry.
Smelt shows me two books, each filled with paintings of dreams flanked by short descriptions. Surrealistic, vivid scenes which have little in common with one another except for their protagonist: a slight figure with short hair and glasses who mirrors the artist sat across from me. In the first drawing, a composition in bright red, the subject stands with her back to the viewer, facing a panel of men. Smelt recounts the recurring dream she has of herself standing before a jury of men, one of which she tells me is her father, as they reject her drawings.
The dream’s root in the real world is a strong one: a desire for acceptance, a fear of being rebuffed, the passing of judgement from parent to child, the vulnerability of a woman standing in front of men. The next drawing however delivers you back into reverie. A futile attempt at deciphering a dream. Its caption reads: On the table in front of me is a delicious crab. Just when I want to take a bite, there appears to be human life in the crab and I lose my appetite. As I flick through the pages of these books I am presented with all the thoughts, fears, and desires of a lifetime in their most abstract form. Some are solemn, some border on humorous, but all are real in that they were experienced.
Imagine if you could experience your life as a graphic novel. Three years ago, GG tells me, memories and visions from her childhood began to impose themselves upon her. Instead of writing an autobiography, GG began to paint it in acrylic and pressed charcoal. The series entitled Levenslicht (Life light).consists of several large canvases divided into twelve rectangles depicting various periods within the artist’s life. She is currently working on number eight in which she is in her early teens. In these paintings, the characters float on their backgrounds with little distinction between sky and ground. “Aren’t we creatures of light? Aren’t we contours on a background? and isn’t it our job to emerge from that literal and figurative background? Or to return to it, the light, in the end?!”.
Should you be interested in getting in touch with Godelieve Giovan Smelt, you can email her at [email protected]
Discover more artists in See All This #28 – Pretty Brilliant women in the arts Vol. II.
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