Seeing in a new light
The Listeners (1965) captures Jeffrey Smart's penchant for cinematic atmosphere and understated sexuality.
JEFFREY Smart was flattered when art historian and curator Barry Pearce explained just how much people like to read psychological meanings into the artist's paintings. It wasn't Smart's intention to create an intriguing world of signs, symbols and hidden narratives. Rather, he'd always had a more prosaic concern: the play of light.
There is no doubt Smart's distinct style creates an air of the mysterious and the uncanny. Architectural fragments, modern urban wastelands, brooding skyscapes, empty roads and, often, a lonely and inscrutable human figure amid it all - these elements in a Smart painting entice us, make us frown with curiosity, and lead us down diverging paths.
Smart is happy for us to go there if we wish, says Pearce, who has known the renowned artist (now 91) for more than 30 years. While organising a new touring retrospective of Smart's paintings for the Samstag Museum of Art in Adelaide, they have had many more conversations about the work. Pearce suggests Smart has always been driven not by a desire to be enigmatic, but by a sense of ecstasy over ''something seen that excited him [so much] that he wanted to paint a picture around it''.
''I guess what he was after was a language of clean, crisp shapes and colour and geometric architecture,'' says Pearce, a former head curator of Australian art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, whose book Master of Stillness: Jeffrey Smart 1940-2011 accompanies the new exhibition, now at TarraWarra Museum of Art in Healesville.
''The natural geometry of architecture provided him with a language that was close to his interests … that love of emptied-out spaces where you could be yourself and discover something about yourself. It carried right through to the end.''
He is referring to the expatriate Smart's ''last'' painting, Labyrinth, done in 2011 in Italy, where he lives. In the painting, a hatted man looks back over his shoulder from the middle of a maze of terracotta walls, against a threatening sky. He is, in the warm glow of light on the walls, a mystery, and he is utterly alone.
Everyone notices the scarcity of humans in Smart's paintings. While Pearce was taking a tour of volunteer guides recently, one of them remarked, ''Where are the people?'' Pearce says Smart includes a human being ''as a sort of tuning fork to heighten the sense of emptiness or the pure geometry''. Sometimes, it is a purely pictorial gesture: in the famous Cahill Expressway, for example, Smart ''wanted a blue shape, a human presence to make sense of the rest pictorially''.
Many have pondered over the one-armed man in that painting. Indeed, it is usually the people - their paucity and their interesting placements and postures - that incite viewers to discern enigmatic narratives, or a sense that Smart's paintings tell stories in some alternate universe or a world gone awry.
''I … think it has a lot to do with his sense of theatre - a lot of the paintings remind me of a set, an opera set: the curtain goes back and you get this moment of silence or stillness when something is about to happen,'' Pearce says.
''It engenders an excitement, or expectancy.''
Pearce, in his continuing conversations with Smart, says the artist talks about revealing the world by light, of always trying to find an excuse to paint the miracle of illumination. ''Everything that is given to us in the world is given by light,'' Pearce says. ''It is how we see, feel and articulate our presence.''
Other viewers see the repeated dark skies in Smart's paintings as a presage of disaster. That, however, is quite deep for it deals with bedrock themes about our place and significance in the universe - that the light in our lives comes from us revolving around an ancient star that, in turn, revolves inside a slowly turning galaxy that moves outwards from the source of the 15-billion-year-old epicentre of the Big Bang. And without that light, we would not exist.
From that observation, it seems trite to ponder another element on which viewers like to ruminate, especially for those who have read Smart's autobiography Not Quite Straight (1996).
Sexuality, though, does ripple through the paintings and, as Pearce observes, ''everything is up for grabs''. It is there in paintings such as San Cataldo I (1964), The Gymnasium (1962) and Rushcutters Bay Baths (1961) but Pearce says Smart asked him - even though he gives much detail about his homosexuality in his autobiography - ''not to go there'' where the artwork is concerned. Pearce is nonetheless interested in the eroticism that plays through the work.
As he says, the work is so strongly classic there is enough material for anyone to appreciate it on many levels; although he has been studying the work for many years, he was still surprised to discover some elements creeping up on him.
''As with all great artists, the revelations don't stop coming,'' he says. ''In the past, I couldn't understand why the skies are so dark.''
Having spent more time with Smart, he has observed his deep love of cinema. Last time he was in Italy with him, they would sit and watch films together and Smart would know who had done the sets, the lighting, the costumes.
''It started at a young age,'' he says. ''He used to sneak off as a child, borrowing money from a neighbour. When you realise that, you look at a painting like [Approaching Storm by Railway (1955)] and you can imagine Fellini or Cocteau opening a film with a scene like that. [It shows an abandoned pram by a road, a dark sky looming.] There is such a filmic quality that each painting can almost be seen as a film still.''
Another element that has struck him has been Smart's fascination with what endures and what doesn't - the poetry of posterity in contrast with the ephemeral, with ''what will happen to him and his reputation and art when he is gone''.
Looking at the impressive list of museums and other lenders for this exhibition, that has perhaps already been settled.
■ Master of Stillness: Jeffrey Smart Paintings 1940-2011 is at TarraWarra Museum of Art until March 31. twma.com.au