Michael Smither 'The Divers'

Linda Tyler
Posted on 7 November 2023

Michael Smither’s compelling image of three male athletes about to plunge into the pool at the start of a swimming race isolates them in mid-air, showing them leaving the starter’s block in flying formation. Biceps bulging up close to their ears, they stretch out their arms and fingers to break the surface of the water ahead of them, their bodies self-shadowing against a cerulean blue sky. The musculature of their lean torsos and limbs has been carefully rendered so that we can see what magnificent specimens they are. They have sucked in their bellies and squeezed their shoulder blades together to achieve a perfectly streamlined posture, their bodies tensed to create the least resistance when entering the water. These modern men are rendered like the Greek gods seen in Hellenistic sculpture, reminding us of the origin of the Olympic Games. Smither has transformed a found photograph where the legs have mostly been cropped out in the framing so that attention is focussed on the upper bodies and arms. His painting has abstracted these figures from the detail of pool lanes and other competitors to create an image of the concentrated action of super humans. Rather than recording a particular event, Divers has been universalised to give it drama and pathos, demanding an emotional response from the viewer.

Michael Smither
The Divers

oil on board
signed with artist’s initials and dated ’74
1220 x 1550mm

Private collection, Golden Bay.

Trish Gribben, Michael Smither: Painter (Ron Sang, Auckland, 2004), p. 135.

$120 000 - $160 000

View lot here

In late January 1974, Christchurch hosted the 10th British Commonwealth Games at Queen Elizabeth II Park. Swimming and diving events were held in the newly constructed pool, and coverage of the races dominated the New Zealand print and broadcast media. Pool-side photographers used motorised cameras with high shutter speeds which could capture action by taking over 250 frames per second. Michael Smither – a keen underwater diver in his youth, and always interested in photography – was fascinated by how this technology revealed the differences in the techniques that the athletes used, later recalling: “My interest in photography has been stimulated by the terrific examples of sports photography and I’ve kept cuttings from newspapers and made several paintings based on these images.” Although the individuality of the swimmers is mostly suppressed to the extent that even their swimming trunks are identical, there are telling differences. We can see that the foreground figure is dark-haired and thicker set, with pronounced deltoid muscles. His face is shadowed but we can see that he has his eyes closed, his head raised above his shoulders and his arms already turning down to the water. The midground figure also has his head high, but his face is hidden, with the little fingers on both hands flexed up. Furthest from the viewer is the blonde swimmer whose head is tucked down so that his facial features are silhouetted in profile. He resembles Invercargill-born 21-year-old Mark Treffers who won gold in the 400 metres individual medley that year in Christchurch. Six feet tall with long arms, here he seems to already be stretching ahead of the other two, caught at the start of a race he intended to win.

Linda Tyler