The Tarrawarra Museum of Art’s current retrospective of Jeffrey Smart’s work from 1940-2011, which runs until 31 March 2013, includes the Portrait of Clive James (1991-92), a painting of an internationally recognisable expatriate Australian writer and broadcaster at the height of his career by a locally celebrated expatriate Australian artist.
James is a solitary and distant figure in a cityscape obscured by a corrugated fence which, if the viewer were two steps closer to, would obscure James altogether. It is only James’s renown that transforms the painting from a chance encounter between artist and subject to a portrait in which their isolation is overcome by recognition and familiarity: it is easy to imagine that, with his arms resting casually on the barrier of a traffic overpass, he has recognised someone in the shadows – is it Smart the painter, or us the viewer?
International recognition has not come for Smart as he might have hoped when he left Australia. His paintings are held mostly in Australian collections, although impressively he is represented in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. But If Smart had intended the painting an allegory about their relative public success, the warm mustard tone of the fence suggests it is not an unhappy one, and with more than half the painting bathed in light, it seems a matter of time before the viewer is in the sun.
Smart and James were both born between the Wars, but were of different generations. Born in 1921 in Adelaide, Smart grew into the years marked by the Depression, World War II and left Australia on his first overseas trip while post-war rationing remained in place – that was to Europe via North America from 1948-1950, which included study with Fernand Leger in Paris, before returning to settle in Sydney in 1951. It was another 10 years before he emigrated. James was born in 1938 and, like other well-known Australian expatriates like Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes and Barry Humphries, grew into the optimism of the Long Boom: all four had left Australia by their mid-20s.
It made Smart a late emigrant in comparison with his younger compatriots, but it may have been simply a question of opportunity that the times afforded, because all five moved to Britain or Europe between 1959-1964. While the four younger eventually gravitated towards London and New York City, Smart – already a mature painter in his 40s by the 1960s – moved first to Rome and then to a his current home near Arezzo in Tuscany.
There he was stably removed from the centres of politics, art, philosophy and industry, and neither directly witnessed nor involved himself the spirit of the age marked by the Cold War, economic integration and prosperity in western Europe, civil and political rights, nor got carried away by artistic movements such as minimalism.
Instead he sought instead to thoughtfully observe and interpret its effect on people and their relationship with the built environment. This somewhat provincial approach may be one reason he has gained wider recognition.
Another may be that when Smart arrived in Rome he had already synthesised the major influences of geometric construction and Parisian modernism, with a sensibility for flat rural and urban landscapes, into a style that had established his reputation in Australia – one he refined in Italy rather than transformed.
If there is one painting in the exhibition which to me both synthesises Smart’s early artistic influences and foreshadows his future work, it is The Vacant Lot of 1947, painted the year before he first left for Europe.
In a scene incidental to suburban life the painting shows a young woman, or an adolescent girl, intently watching four athletic young men kicking a football in a vacant lot while her two companions sit disinterested on the grass.
The young woman stands with her feet and legs open to the men, while a fence post points into her back which is turned so that it is almost flat to the canvass, positioning the viewer directly behind her so that they might understand the scene from her perspective.
The impressionistic figures recall the watchful, playful or statuesque bathers of Cezanne and Matisse, but here placed on a grassy field enclosed by a developing suburbia rather than an idyllic pool. In Kapunda Mines (1946), to be discussed in a later post, Smart had more obviously dispersed a Cezanne inspired group bathers around a water pool that was built as part the town’s old copper mines or marble quarry.
Smart creates rhythm by letting shadows fall to the left of the picture, the opposite direction to the road, which vanishes in front of the terraced house on the right edge of the painting, creating a cross-relationship between the direction of light and perspective. And he creates stillness, or suspension, by letting shadows fall from unimportant stationary objects – the seated young girl and the fence post – and eliminating them from the main subjects.
An important feature of the painting, and a technique Smart used systematically, is composing paintings using the Golden Mean. The Golden Mean occurs on a line where, after dividing it into two unequal lengths, the ratio of the longer length to the shorter length is the same as the line itself to the longer length. That ratio, correct to six decimal places, is 1: 0.618034:
As measured from the right of the picture, the Golden Mean runs through the centre of the tallest building, a forbidding, windowless tower, dividing the picture left and right between the action in the lot, and the road than runs down the hill in front of the terraced house.
Even without knowing about the Golden Mean, it is possible to see the young woman’s desire, and it would be a mistake to look at Smart’s paintings in geometric terms alone. However, Smart’s use this ratio is fundamental to the construction of his canvasses – a technique he shares with artists and architects dating back at least to Ancient Greece, when the ratio was first discovered – and helps in understanding his craft and the significant elements of his paintings.
Portrait of Clive James is held by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. The Vacant Allotment is held by the New England Regional Art Museum, Armidale. The exhibition Jeffrey Smart: Master of Stillness is being held by the Tarrawarra Museum of Art in conjunction with the Samstag Museum of Art, University of South Australia. Factual information about Smart is taken from the exhibition book by his biographer Barry Pearce, Jeffrey Smart, Master of Stillness: Paintings 1940-2011.