Emily Mae Smith - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Friday, October 15, 2021 | Phillips

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  • 'I thought this reality is invisible to other people. If I paint it, it becomes visible.' —Emily Mae Smith

    Executed in her signature clean, graphic style and hyper-saturated pop palette, Invisible Woman brings together key themes and motifs that are foundational to Brooklyn-based artist Emily Mae Smith’s evolving body of work. Enigmatic and alluring, an invisible and inscrutable face floats against a brilliant blue sky scudded with clouds, discernible only by her daisy-chain sunglasses and perfectly pouted red lips. Her glasses shaded and reflecting back to us our own, rose-tinted reality, Smith’s Invisible Woman questions the gendered politics of representation, mounting a tongue-in-cheek critique of the male gaze, consumption, desire and the female form.

    Borrowing from literary and pop culture as much as her carefully studied understanding of Surrealist iconography, Smith’s utterly contemporary and highly distinctive brand of what she has evocatively described as ‘feminist pop’ here takes direct aim at certain dominant and overtly masculinist art-historical narratives, introducing humour as a way of deflating and reassessing entrenched assumptions related to women, gendered divisions of labour under capitalism, and the invisibility of so much work – both domestic and artistic - performed by women.i


    Sweeping Clean 

     'With each work, she is forcibly inserting herself into a tradition of painting that has relegated women to the sidelines for centuries, and a system of legitimation that continues to make the labour of women art workers invisible.' —Natasha HoareAs Smith has often commented, knowing what to leave out of a painting has become as fundamental for her as knowing what to put into it, a careful balance that is stretched to its metaphorical limits with Invisible Woman. Although not immediately visible in the work, Smith’s iconic broom figure nevertheless dominates the composition, identified by her familiar 60s sunglasses and smoothly finished pout. The most frequently recurring figure across Smith’s work, the broom operates as an interlocutor for the artist, ‘going through the history of art, disturbing constructs, making some trouble or behaving badly.'íi  Freed from the narrow range of menial tasks she was destined for, Smith’s broom figure stealthily enters into well-established and familiar art-historical modes traditionally dominated and determined by male artists, deflating and challenging those structures with exceptional wit and economy.


    Emily Mae Smith, Brooms with a View, 2019, Whitey Museum of American Art, New York, USA © 2021. Digital image Whitney Museum of American Art / Licensed by Scala © Emily Mae Smith

    Inspired by the anthropomorphic and self-replicating broomstick of Disney’s ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, Smith’s broom figure acts as an agent for critique and chaos in much the same way. With its proximity to domestic labour traditional coded as female on the one hand, and to the paintbrush on the other, the Broom operates as a means of making visible the historically marginalised labour performed by women (art)workers, and of loudly announcing their refusal to stay within the strictly delimited social roles they have been assigned as women. On a formal level, the broom also allows Smith to represent the female body while working ‘around the gendered connotations that you might get from painting the naked female figure’.iii


    Subverting Surrealism

    '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  
    This question of the overlooked labour of women art workers becomes especially pertinent in Invisible Woman’s highly articulate response to 20th century Surrealism, it’s treatment of representation, desire and the female form, and of the critical relegation of women artists to muses within this art-historical tradition. Deeply engaged with the visual languages of Surrealism, and particularly of the Belgian master René Magritte’s works on paper, the strange juxtaposition of Smith’s photorealist cloud-scattered sky and sharply rendered free-floating facial features are immediately recognisable as a response to Magritte’s recurrent cumulous-cloud motif and improbably floating or dematerialising forms. Strikingly, the finely detailed daisy-chain frames of Smith’s invisible Broom figure’s sunglasses vividly recalls Magritte’s Shéhérazade series of paintings and gouaches from the 1940s, which all feature variations of his so-called ‘pearl-woman’ motif. 


    René Magritte, Scheherazade, 1950, Private Collection © 2021. Photothèque R. Magritte / SCALA, Florence © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021

    Featured heavily in his 1947 exhibition at Galerie Lou Cosyn, Brussels, Magritte named this ‘pearl-woman’ Sheherazade in memory of his reading of One Thousand and One Nights the summer before. Although her dematerialised body touches to some extent on the narrator’s need to disappear behind her elaborate stories in order to avoid execution, Magritte’s reduction of her to a selection of sexualised and ornately displayed body parts, alongside his comment that ‘Looks, kisses and pearls make love stories attractive’ still absolutely situates her as a passive object for male consumption.iv


    Dramatically eroding a sense of the narrator Shéhérazade’s own creative labours, a second, more pointed elision emerges when we realise that one of the gouaches in the series bears the subtitle ‘Portrait of Rachel Baes’. A now almost forgotten Belgian Surrealist, Baes’s work was well-known to Magritte, and she even collaborated with him on several Surrealist home movie projects.


    Left: Portrait of Belgian Surrealist Rachael Baes, Photograph by Willy Kessels © DACS 2021
    Right: Lee Miller, Fire Masks, Hampstead, London, 1941, One of Miller’s most famous war photographs, originally shot as part of a Vogue feature on women in the war. © Lee Miller Archives, England 2021. All rights reserved. leemiller.co.uk

    In a similar vein, Man Ray’s obsessive reworking of the lips, eyes and naked body of his ex-lover Lee Miller – of which the present work seems to make more than a passing visual reference to – ensured that for decades she was known more as a muse and attractive love interest rather a significant artist in her own right. Given Smith’s vocal revisionism, it is certainly tempting to read the lips and glasses here as coded references to the Man Ray’s representation of Miller, and of the strange surrealism of her own, now highly regarded war photographs.


    Man Ray, A l'heure de l'observatoire - Les amoureux (Observatory Time: The Lovers), 1936, The Israel Museum by Avshalom Avital. © Man Ray 2015 Trust / ADAGP – DACS – 2021; image : Telimage, Paris

    This repositioning of dynamic woman artworker to passive female muse is a frequent criticism of Surrealism, and in her invocation of Magritte’s ‘pearl-woman’, Smith at once highlights a Western art-historical tradition of making the female body stand in metonymically for ‘Art’, and of Surrealism’s assault on the female form on these grounds.

    Entering into Surrealism’s visual language in order to critique its gendered power structures, Smith’s introduction of the broom as a visual tool works on making the labour of women artists highly visible.  Referencing the ‘pearl-woman’ but reversing the power dynamics of the looker and looked-upon activated in Magritte’s version, Smith replaces the ornate presentation of the woman’s eyes with the pearl-studded and shaded daisy-glasses. Far from a passive object for our consumption, Smith’s Invisible Woman is in the process of defining herself on her own terms and outside of our gaze, her glasses at once highlighting the limitations of our vision and opening up a new way of seeing on the threshold between inner and outer worlds, ‘an alien world that hasn’t been present before in a discussion about painting’.v


    ‘Portrait of an Artist: Emily Mae Smith showing at Le Consortium (Dijon)’, 2019 


    Collector’s Digest 


    •    Currently the subject of significant commercial and institutional attention, 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.


    •    Smith's solo show Harvesters opens October 16 at Perrotin, Paris.


    •    Just this year in Hong Kong, Phillips set the artist’s world record with Broom Life, which achieved $1,591,515 (HK$12,350,000), soaring over 20 times the work’s high estimate.


    i Emily Mae Smith, quoted in ‘Broom With a View: Emily Mae Smith’s Humourous Art-Historical Revisions’, Elephant, 15 November 2018, online 
    ii Emily Mae Smith, ‘Emily Mae Smith: A Clean Sweep’, Juxtapoz: Art & Culture, 6 May 2019, online 
    iii in ‘Broom With a View: Emily Mae Smith’s Humourous Art-Historical Revisions’, Elephant, 15 November 2018, online 
    iv René Magritte, Titres (1948), quoted in David Slyvester, ed., René Magritte: Catalogue Raisonné, Volume II, Oil Paintings and Objects 1931-1948, 1993, Brussels, p. 387
    v Emily Mae Smith, ‘Portrait of an artist: Emily Mae Smith Showing at Le Consortium (Dijon)’, 22 February 2019, online

    • Provenance

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


Invisible Woman

signed and dated 'Emily Mae Smith 2016' on the reverse
oil on linen
122 x 94 cm (48 x 37 in.)
Painted in 2016.

Full Cataloguing

£40,000 - 60,000 

Sold for £930,000

Contact Specialist

Kate Bryan
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

+44 7391 402741


Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe

+44 20 7318 4099

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 15 October 2021