Emily Mae Smith - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Friday, October 14, 2022 | Phillips
  • "… instead of going with whatever the canon of art history says, I actually just developed deeply personal relationships with specific paintings, giving them my read. In a sense my paintings are a response to these paintings and the web of social, cultural and emotional weight they carry instead of a reference to them."
    —Emily Mae Smith
    Immediately arresting in its clean, graphic quality and radically reduced palette, Raft on Siren Sea is a striking example of Texan-born Emily Mae Smith’s sophisticated blend of art historical reference, sharp-edged wit, and feminist revisionism. Belonging to a distinct body of work that places itself in direct dialogue with the fin de siècle arts periodical The Studio through the appropriation of its title and distinctive typeface, Raft on Siren Sea highlights Smith’s playfully subversive response to established art historical narratives. Blending visual references to Surrealism, the Chicago Imagists, and the various distinct movements associated with fin de siècle, Smith has developed her own, highly distinctive brand of ‘feminist pop’, introducing humour as a way of deflating and reframing assumptions related to women, class, and the imagined divisions between high and low culture.i


    The Studio

    "When I discovered it, I loved the idea that this word – ‘The Studio’ – would encapsulate everything you needed to know about art in some way […] The Studio becomes a container for me to write new myths and new stories."
    —Emily Mae Smith

    Founded by Charles Holme with the utopian idea of bridging international communities by establishing and disseminating a shared visual language, The Studio was first published in 1893. Subtitled an ‘Illustrated Magazine of Fine and Applied Art’ it took the form of a monthly periodical – one of the first of its kind – and introduced the so-called Modern Style characterised by the likes of Aubrey Beardsley and Charles Rennie Mackintosh to both American and European audiences. 
    As well as the title and its distinctive typography, Smith also borrows certain formal elements of the magazine, the simplified treatment of sinuous line and flat, broad contrasts of black and white so characteristic of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations and the limitations imposed by the printing process that are particularly obvious in Raft on Siren Sea.


    Aubrey Beardsley, Design for the first issue of ‘The Studio’ An Illustrated Magazine of the Fine and Applied Arts, No. 30, September 1895, Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Image: V&A Images / Alamy Stock Photo
CAPTION: Detail of the present work
    Left: Aubrey Beardsley, Design for the first issue of ‘The Studio’ An Illustrated Magazine of the Fine and Applied Arts, No. 30, September 1895, Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Image: V&A Images / Alamy Stock Photo
    Right: Detail of the present work

    In her first institutional solo show held at Le Consortium, Dijon in 2019, Smith dedicated a room to a selection of these ‘Studio’ pieces, which she has continued to work on since 2014. Presenting an enormous range in the art historical touchstones referenced, they are united as a body of works by the obvious inclusion of the text, and by the broader ideas that Smith finds embedded in the concept of ‘The Studio’ itself. Developing the notion that as a magazine and a physical space it encapsulates both the practice of artmaking and a knowledge of its history, Smith appropriates and occupies ‘The Studio’, installing her broom avatar as a way of making visible the historically marginalised work of women artists. An active and autonomous agent rather than a passive muse, using the studio conceit the broom is able to move across art historical space and time, parodying the tropes and narratives she finds there and rewriting them in Smith’s own, distinct visual style.


    The Siren’s Story

    "… all that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all"
    —The Odyssey
    Creatures of classical myth and legend, the siren’s reputation is one of cruelty and destruction, using their beguiling voices to lure unsuspecting sailors to their deaths. Most famously appearing in Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey where the hero, desperate to hear their siren song, had himself strapped to the mast of his ship to restrain himself from the allure of their call, they have been historically presented as muses of the underworld – beautiful, but dangerous. A misogynistic cautionary tale illustrating the seductive powers of women to blind a man against his own interests and bind him to her will, the siren represents temptation, and the doomed fate of the men who weaken to it.


    Originally represented in early Greek art as a hybrid of woman and bird, the siren is now more commonly thought of as a sea creature, a figure who has endured in our cultural imagination as the mermaid immortalised by folk tales, film, and painting. As a hybrid creature occupying both human and animal worlds, possessing enormous narrative power, and directly challenging the authority and arrogance of men, the siren seems a particularly appealing subject for Smith, and it is unsurprising that the figure has reappeared in several different guises across her paintings, most frequently in reference to the late 19th and early 20th century fascination with the figure, captured in the pioneering films of Georges Méliès and the painters of Pre-Raphaelite John William Waterhouse.


    George Méliès, La sirène, 1904


    Drawing on the fascination expressed by the Romantics for the supernatural and the sublime in the face of the scientific objectivity of the age, Waterhouse was especially drawn to scenes from legend and myth, his strangely haunting paintings of nymphs, mermaids, and sirens indivisible from the broader culture of fin de siècle Aestheticism and the themes, motifs and visual style that characterised the Pre-Raphaelite turn to Medievalism. The broom has appropriated a number of Waterhouse’s most iconic paintings in recent years including A Mermaid (1900), The Siren (1900), and The Sorceress (c. 1911), and here seems to be using Waterhouse’s depiction of the Odysseus myth to interrogate the gendered politics of this foundational piece of European literature.


    John William Waterhouse, Ulysses and the Sirens, 1891, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Image: akg-images
    John William Waterhouse, Ulysses and the Sirens, 1891, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Image: akg-images

    Whereas Waterhouse represents the climax of the dramatic action, the winged sirens flocking around the small raft to draw the bound Odysseus to his watery grave, Smith takes a decidedly different approach. Sailing under a silent moon, at first glance the ship here seems empty, the lapping waves driving it on. Upon closer inspection though, we see the sea itself contains the unmistaken forms of female bodies, the rise and fall of the waves echoing a feminine silhouette. Replacing the hero Odysseus and his all-male crew, Smith places a female protagonist at the helm, the literal and symbolic figurehead for an alternative version of this canonical story. Tellingly, the mast is subtly reconfigured into the curved silhouette of a brush. At once evoking her broom avatar and the tools of her trade, Smith commandeers Odysseus’ vessel - and, by extension, a literary and art historical tradition that has relegated women to monsters, bit-players on the side-lines of this tale of adventure and exploration – remaining the raft as an artist at the start of an epic adventure of her own.


    Collector’s Digest


    • Currently the subject of significant commercial and institutional attention, Emily Mae Smith has received important solo exhibitions around the globe, including at the Le Consortium, Dijon in 2018, Perrotin Gallery, Tokyo in 2019, the SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah in 2020, and Rodolphe Janssen Gallery, Brussels, in 2021. Most recently, Smith presented her first solo exhibition in Paris in October 2021 and her first monograph was recently published by Petzel Gallery.


    • Borrowing stylistic and compositional elements from the turn of the century British periodical ‘The Studio’, the present work belongs to Smith’s celebrated series of the same title, with one example now held in Le Consortium’s permanent collection.


    • Smith received her MFA from Columbia University. Her work belongs to multiple public collections, including the Whitey Museum of American Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, among others.


    Emily Mae Smith discusses her practice ahead of her 2019 solo exhibition at Le Consortium, Dijon.

    i  Emily Mae Smith, quoted in ‘Broom With a View: Emily Mae Smith’s Humourous Art-Historical Revisions’, Elephant, 15 November 2018, online

    • Provenance

      Mary Mary, Glasgow
      Acquired from the above by the present owner


Raft on Siren Sea

signed and dated 'Emily Mae Smith 2017' on the reverse
oil on linen
170 x 130 cm (66 7/8 x 51 1/8 in.)
Painted in 2017.

Full Cataloguing

£80,000 - 120,000 

Sold for £226,800

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 14 October 2022