In his thoughtful essay, Search for the Timeless, included in his Jeffrey Smart: Master of Stillness: Paintings from 1940-2011, Smart’s biographer Barry Pearce cites Morning Practice, Baia of 1969 as a ‘simple work [that] holds a central position within the entire span of Smart’s painting career’ and is ‘an essential image of the artist himself.’ The work is part of a retrospective of Smart’s work at the Tarrawarra Museum of Art, in Victoria’s Yarra Valley, until 31 March 2013.
It shows, Pearce says, an artist ‘fascinated by its [geometry’s] capacity to measure the meaning of existence, whilst enjoying life-enhancing sunlight illuminating the modern walls of what used to be an ancient fleshpot of the Roman Empire on the Bay of Naples.’ Comparing Smart’s last work Labyrinth (2011) to it, which contains the half-revealed figure of HG Wells, Pearce says that ‘again we are stimulated to ponder … the significance of timeless light illuminating a man in the crosshairs of the Golden Mean.’
What are we to ponder?
Comparing Labyrinth to Morning Practice, Baia is misleading inasmuch as the figure in Morning Practice is not in the crosshairs of the Golden Mean. The Golden Mean from right of picture runs through the shadow of the cube; from left it runs it takes a chip off the cube’s right corner.
If we pondered only this, we might say the shadow is the crucial element of the painting. If that were the case, what does it mean? Its features are that it is in the periphery of the man’s vision as he concentrates on the ball, and it is cast in the direction of the sea that sits calmly under a grey sky.
Is it an allegory about our lack of clear vision to what lies beyond mature youth, or middle age? It is saying we can barely see the shadow of our own life that is cast by the light in which we play, and that we are half-blind to the effects of our presence and actions? Is the substance of our life nothing more than a shadow on the wall– dark and ephemeral – that will blend into the obscurity of darkness once the light gives out? If the Golden Mean is important in interpreting Smart’s work, these are legitimate questions; but they are at odds with this picture’s bright and playful mood.
There is another Golden Mean.
The crucial line in this picture runs vertically though the left corner of the cube to the man’s eyes. This is the line the man uses to connect with the cube and find his balance. Also important is that the lines created by the red railing converge to a vanishing point – the point at which we lose sight but gain perspective – on this inner Golden Mean, just above the man’s eyes, and level with the horizon which is hidden from view. With this intersection of point and line, Smart equates perspective with balance, invisibility, and inner perfection.
What now then is to ponder?
As Pearce also notes, Smart recalled Picasso’s Acrobat on a Ball (1905) when he sketched it. Acrobat on a Ball sits within Picasso’s so-called rose period (1904-1906) which is characterised by a consistent use of pink hues and subjects from the circus. The figure in Morning Practice, Baia despite a balding or possibly shaved head, has the body of well-toned mature youth, and combines in one figure the playfulness of Picasso’s wispy girl with the hard muscularity of the statuesque man.
Smart references Picasso’s rose period with the pink and azure colour of the boarding, and shows a playful optimism by inverting Picasso’s young acrobat, placing him on his back with a sun-yellow cube. It is as if Smart has upended a marble statue on a pedestal and brought it to life.
It is this playfulness that makes the figure closer to Picasso’s lithe Bathers of 1918, because while Smart would have known that Picasso’s rose period paintings are more optimistic than the especially dark moods of the preceding ‘blue period’ (1901-1904), many of the rose period figures show poignancy and consternation. Smart would also have known, as Picasso did, that acrobatics is a sport of youth needing strength, agility and impeccable balance. He would also have been conscious that by 1969 Picasso was an old man of almost 90 years and approaching the end of his life while Smart at 48 was in the middle of his.
Was Morning Practice a pivotal moment for Smart? Did he wonder about old age as much as he thought about the life he had already lived? Is he saying that in middle-life there is an inner, less obvious perfection that is both playful and optimistic and that, despite the shadows on the wall and the approaching melancholy of old age, we can suspend ourselves in a moment of perfection in the simple pleasure of morning play? Perhaps Smart recalled Picasso’s statement ‘It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child’ and intended the painting simply as an allegory about seeing the world with continuing wonder as we get older.
Whatever our reaction, Smart offers us layers of meaning using geometry, colour and an historical reference to Picasso. I doubt there is any one meaning Smart intended us to take away from this picture once it is properly unlocked. Instead, there are as many things to ponder as there are people willing to bring themselves to it.
Morning Practice, Baia is held in a private collection.