A painter of Australia’s great elegance, wry observations

There are two things that I remember listening to as a child. First, I remember the wonder of the golden mean – the magic geometric ratio that rules Western art. Second, we heard about Rembrandt and his unique artistic path.

When I found out that Phidias was who he claimed to be, I saw the Golden Mean in all of his meticulously constructed paintings. But Rembrandt Jeffrey Smart’s paintings’ surfaces are a meticulous homage to the Italian Renaissance, and at times, his compositions have echoes from the metaphysical works by Giorgio de Chirico. The painterly style of Rembrandt is not reflected in their work.

Jeffrey Smart, Waiting for a train, 1969-1970. National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, Canberra, bought 1969, gift of Alcoa World Alumina Australia Australia 2005. (c) Estate of Jeffrey Smart.

But that was not the point. Smart spoke in Sydney, Australia, in 1960. At that time, artists were expected in Sydney to be hard-drinking heterosexual men who painted abstracts. Smart did not fit into that culture. He was a staunch supporter of the classical forms in the Italian quattrocento and especially of Piero della Francesca. He was at odds with Australia because of his love for structure, fine details, and smooth surfaces.

Jeffrey Smart, Morning at Savona 1976, University Art Collection Chau Chak Wing, University of Sydney. Donated by the Alan Richard Renshaw legacy in 1976, (c) The estate of Jeffrey Smart.

Only years later, after he had moved to Italy, did his native country fully appreciate his elegant observations. This artist, who was once out of step with his peers, has become one of Australia’s favorite sons in his later years.

Deborah Hart and Rebecca Edwards, curators at the National Gallery, have created a thoughtful, generous, reassessment of Smart’s relationship with the people and places that nourished him.

Shape, Line, and Colour

Adelaide, his hometown, is the starting point. It was a city that had a very well-planned urban center and (at that time) was a place of strict Protestant conformity.

The way light and shadow create patterns on surfaces and the contrast between the clear construction shapes and fluid human beings.

Alfred Hitchcock’s films, which use visual clues as a way to suggest tension, were introduced to him by local cinemas. Hitchcock is famous for inserting his character as an incidental one into his stories. I’ve always wondered if the solitary man watching in so many Smart paintings was a tribute in part to the original master visual suspense.

Smart only discussed his work as it relates to the formal relationship of shape, line, and color. The formalism of Smart’s work is a result of his early study in Adelaide and the influence Dorrit black (1891-1951) had on him. She was a modernist painter who returned to Adelaide from France after residing in the city for some time. Her Roofs and Flowers are displayed next to Smart’s early Seated Naked. The connection is obvious.

Jeffrey Smart, Keswick siding. Tarntanya/Adelaide. Oil on canvas. Oil on canvas. Art Gallery of New South Wales Sydney Gift of Charles B Moses, 1982 193.1982

Keswick Siding, for example, is an escape painting from his Adelaide period. After he moved from Adelaide to Sydney, his work was perceived as part of the charm school despite its unfashionable dedication to classical form and precision. While living and working in Sydney, he became a highly regarded teacher at the National Art School as well as a broadcaster.

Humor and Friends

Smart’s mature works include a visual joke and a touch of humanity. In Holiday, 1971, a pattern of windows and balconies is interrupted by a small woman lazing in sunlight. He claimed that he used people to create a sense of scale in his building paintings. It was an old trick of artists. I’m not sure what that does in Portrait of Clive James unless the idea is to remind the subject of their importance in the scheme of things.

Jeffrey Smart Clive James’s Portrait. 1991-92 Tuscany, Italy. Oil on canvas. Oil on canvas. Art Gallery of New South Wales Sydney Purchased using funds provided by Art Gallery Society of New South Wales in 1992 (c) Estate of Jeffrey Smart Photo AGNSW 276.1992

Smart’s move to Italy in 1963 led him to lighten his palette and celebrate light through the contrast of geometric shapes from the modern world with the scales of the older. The visual wit is evident, but only to those who pay attention. The gloomy tone of Waiting for the Train (1969-70), a composition by Piero della Francesca, is echoed in this piece.

The impastoed texture of his portrait of Germaine Gréer could be a subtle comment on her character or a rebuttal to those who thought he lacked technical ability as a painter.

Jeffrey Smart. Portrait of Germaine Grer. 1984 Tuscany, Italy. Oil and synthetic polymer on canvas. 96 x 12 cm. Private collection

Smart’s portraits are some of his most pleasing works, where he brings in humor. David Malouf, a scholarly author, is depicted in an overalls and holding an orange pipe. Margaret Olley, who loved the Louvre but was placed in front of a line of anonymous wooden screens, is shown at the Louvre.

Jeffrey Smart David Malouf, Portrait. 1980 Tuscany, Italy. Oil and synthetic polymer on canvas. 100 x 100 cm The State Art Collection at The Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth. Purchased 1983 (c), The Estate of Jeffrey Smart, 1983/0P13

The most fascinating is The Listeners, 1965, where a young boy lies on a grassy field, watched by a radar. The head depicts Smart’s friend and art critic Paul Haefliger, who had fled from Australia to Majorca.

Jeffrey Smart The listeners. 1965 Rome, Italy. Oil on canvas. Oil on canvas. Art Gallery of Ballarat in Ballarat. The William, Rene, and Blair Ritchie Collection. Blair Ritchie’s Bequest 1998 (c) Estate of Jeffrey Smart 1998.

The image shows contrasts in nature and modern technology, such as the golden grass, the red radar, and the dark sky. (For those who know, the difference is between the body of a young model and the aged head of Haefliger.)

Smart’s portraits are rarely focused on the subject. The only exception is The Two-Up Game (Portrait of Ermes), 2008. Ermes became Smart’s partner in 1975. The solid geometry of the containers and the fluidity of people playing a chance game on the other side of his calm face are the background of the painting.

Formally, the image of the man in the foreground is a balance to the composition. This is the real meaning and reason behind it all.

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