Jeffrey Smart. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Closes May 15.
There is a wonderful story that Jeffrey Smart once told me. When the National Gallery of Australia was about to be opened by Her Majesty in 1982 and many prominent artists were invited, including Smart, there was an assumption that he wouldn't come from Tuscany in Italy where he lived. It transpired that he could make the journey and the gallery realised that none of his paintings would be on display. On the night before the opening, a temporary screen was erected and one of Smart's paintings was included for the gala event.
Now the National Gallery is honouring him with a major exhibition to mark his centenary - Smart was born in Adelaide on July 26, 1921. This is the most significant exhibition of his work since his death in 2013 and in about 130 exhibits it surveys his development from early days when, as "Phidias", Smart presented the ABC children's art program The Argonauts, through to his very late work, such as Labyrinth, 2011 that was acquired by the Canberra gallery to honour its retiring director, Ron Radford. It is a stunning show with many of the well-known classics, as well as a sprinkling of rarely seen works. Each generation needs to discover Smart for themselves - this is the landmark Smart show for this generation.
Smart, one of Australia's most popular artists, doesn't comfortably fit into any convenient traditional account of Australian art. Staunchly figurative (he dismissed abstraction as artistic suicide), he embraced the artists of the Italian renaissance (especially Piero della Francesca) and in his sensibility was guided by the 20th century metaphysical masters including Giorgio de Chirico and Balthus. His art belongs to what is frequently termed the "uncanny" orientation in contemporary art practice, where he presents a transfigured reality in which feelings of strangeness and anxiety prevail. His art frequently occupies that middle ground where the imagery that we encounter in his art simultaneously appears as familiar and alien, it attracts and repulses us.
Smart's early classics including Cahill Expressway (1962), On the roof, Taylor Square (1961) or Corrugated Gioconda (1976) bring to the fore subject matter that is familiar, even banal, but it is transfigured into something slightly strange, unnerving and enigmatic. His technique of painting is loving and exacting and as he got older it became more meticulous and more painstakingly precise.
When viewed from the outside, Smart's art practice seems studded with contradictions. From 1971, Smart has lived with his partner, the artist Ermes de Zan, on his farm villa in Tuscany, about 30 kilometres outside of Arezzo - a place of great tranquility and panoramic beauty. One day, when we were returning from a visit to see the Piero della Francesca frescoes of the Legend of the True Cross at the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo, he ordered me to swing past the Arezzo industrial estate where, with tears in his eyes, he declared how deeply moved he was at the sight of peeling paint on a factory wall caught in the sunlight. On the spot, in the front seat of the car, he made a quick sketch of the scene, while I took for him some source photographs. This later grew into a larger drawing, oil studies and finally a major oil painting. Most of his works developed in this three-stage process.
In this, Smart is an old-fashioned sort of artist, where draughtsmanship is the basis of his art, the spontaneous sketch is rigorously developed into a formal drawing that then may serve as a basis for a series of oil studies. It is only when the compositional structure has been satisfactorily resolved that he moves to a final composition on a full-scale canvas, where the battle with glazes and intensities of light is fought out. The process of paring down the structure of the painting until it functions through its basic formal elements is central to his practice.
In his art, Smart champions a modern urban iconography - the autostradas, road signs, factory facades, deserted airports and taxi ranks - these are the motifs that recur throughout his oeuvre. The selection of his subjects is not a postmodernist act of aesthetic indifference, but rather the opposite, it is a result of inspiration, or in his words, an act of enchantment. Smart notes: "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".
Although Smart lived in Italy for much of his professional life, he painted exclusively for an Australian audience and his home in Tuscany became a magnet for visiting Australians and expats living in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. He never fully acclimatised to Italy, like his friend the Australian painter Justin O'Brien who lived in Rome, Smart spoke Italian poorly, but loved the ambience of the place. He once famously described himself as "a European with an Australian passport". In his autobiography, Not quite straight, Smart observed, "this environment is conducive to work, and that in my frequent forays to Arezzo and Florence, I see a lot of the modern world which I like to paint".
There is a story about another painter of transfigured realities whom Smart admired, Edward Hopper, who it is said carried in his wallet a scrap of paper on which was written a quotation from Goethe. "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". For me, this epitomises Smart's process of work - isolating something from the real world and transforming it through the power of an inner vision.
Labyrinth, 2011, that was to be Smart's last major work, is a curious painting where within an endless solid maze cast under stormy skies stands and isolated figure said to be the English novelist, thinker and social reformer H.G Wells. While in the popular imagination, Wells is linked with some of his science-fiction novels including The Island of Dr Moreau, Time Machine and War of the Worlds, the vast majority of his writings dealt with social reform, the modern utopia and world of Kipps, Britling and Mr Polly. Labyrinth is one of Smart's most enigmatic works, where a person towards the end of his life is caught within a construction from which there is no escape. Some of the brushwork lacks the refinement of Smart's best work. For Smart, the skies needed to be dark, but luminous, as he observed, "It's the light that counts; the light on objects can make them beautiful, even if they're unappealing in themselves".
When questioned about the meaning of his works, Smart would frequently play the question with a dead bat and comment on the formal properties that he was trying to resolve in the painting. To some it seemed that he was dodging the question, but I always thought that he was just being very honest. As with his beloved Piero, Smart has created a particular grand stage - severe and uncompromising - and introduced on it an occasional figure, contained and unemotional, and then has set out to create a strict geometric framework through which to combine the figure with their setting, seemingly without the intervention of the artist.
There is no easy solution to the enigma of the Labyrinth, but as we get to know the painting each of us will have our own convincing interpretation. It is the nature of Smart's art - it is accessible to all, but each of us will see it differently.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.