The death of Jeffrey Smart, a month short of his 92nd birthday, marks the end of an epoch in Australian art. His was an unique talent – he made memorable, enigmatic pictures about an urban reality which was common to the experience of most Australians.
Smart is an artist who is difficult to locate either within an Australian or an international tradition of art. While parallels may be drawn with both Edward Hopper and Balthus, two artists whom he admired, he was an artist of a very different temperament.
His pictures are unmistakably and unforgettably his, they do not remind you of someone else’s work, they maintain a certain autonomy within our imagination.
Smart’s art champions a modern urban iconography - the autostradas, road signs, factory facades, deserted airports and taxis ranks – these are the motifs which recur throughout his oeuvre.
Commenting on his process of work, he noted a few years ago: “Many of my paintings have their origin in a passing glance. Something I have seen catches my eye, and I cautiously rejoice because it might be the beginning of a painting.
‘‘Sometimes it is impossible to stop and sketch there because it was seen from a train or from a fast moving car on the autostrada. And it does happen that when I get back to the place, I wonder what on earth it could have been that enchanted me – it wasn’t there. Enchantment is the word for it.”
Smart’s selection of imagery remains striking and remarkable. This exceptionally well-travelled artist, who spent the past several decades living in a tranquil Tuscan valley, about 30 kilometres outside of Arezzo, in a villa opening up to a vista of panoramic splendour, found inspiration in light on a concrete factory wall, peeling posters on building site hoardings, expressways, airport runways and bus depots.
One could argue that Smart invented a new iconography of urban decay through which to convey, in an effective and subtle manner, his commentary on the human condition.
Born in Adelaide, where he received his training, he first was taken to Italy as a child by his parents and subsequently visited Europe on many occasions before settling permanently in Tuscany in 1971. He once famously observed, “I am a European with an Australian passport”.
Smart was a staunchly figurative artist who viewed the path to abstraction as a path to artistic suicide.
However, he was equally opposed to artists who simply copied picturesque scenes and engaged in a reproduction of nature in their art. There is a particularly apt aphorism by Goethe which to me explains Smart’s approach to art. Goethe wrote: “The beginning and end of all literary activity is the reproduction of the world that surrounds me by the means of the world that is in me.”
Objects in Smart’s paintings appear more like props or visual metaphors, rather than constituting the content of the work. Light as a mystical, spiritual and physical force is a key concern in his art, as are questions of irony and ambiguity.
A recurring problem is how to express extreme individuality through abstracted generality and the impersonality of type and how to express intense emotion, yet to contain it within a severe geometric structure. None of these concerns in themselves is unique to the practice of Smart, but in their combination, they are not encountered in the work of any other contemporary artist, and this gives his work a certain solitary existence.
Smart was a man of enormous generosity of spirit, humanity, humour and subtlety. Once when staying with him and his partner, Ermes De Zan, in Tuscany, he asked me to accompany him to the Arezzo industrial estate where he wanted to sketch a large and rather bleak wall of a factory seen from behind a roadway. He asked me to take a few photographs of the scene which he could use as an aide-memoire from which his tiny sketches could be developed into larger drawings, then into oil studies and the final painting.
Later, when he examined my photographs, in exaggerated desperation he puffed out his cheeks, like his pet pugs which kept him company, and solemnly announced that I had missed the main point in my photographs – the effects of light on the factory wall.
His point was well made, what he painted, no photograph can ever capture, it was his timeless, distilled vision of modern existence bathed in an eternal light.