The Tarrawarra Museum of Art’s retrospective of Jeffrey Smart’s work from 1940-2011 shows Smart as an interpreter of solitude and the relationship between people and their built environment, and as an artist who successfully synthesised traditional perspective with the flat and abstract planes of early 20th century modernist painting that eventually destroyed it.
In almost seamlessly bringing these two bookends of western art history together, Smart subtly marries a range of contradictions or dualities on his canvasses: urban landscape and minuscule portraiture in the Portrait of Clive James, the silence of modern communications and invisible movement in the Control Tower and The Listeners, and crossed relations between the direction of perspective and light in Morning Practice, Baia and The Vacant Allotment.
At the heart of his technique lies a sophisticated use of geometry, in particular the Golden Mean (see Part I), to structure his visual elements and help us interpret their meaning. Morning Practice, Baia (1969) is the best example, where the vanishing point of perspective intersects with the line of sight between the man and his cube, a line which is itself an inner Golden Mean of the canvass, so placing the point from which we lose sight and gain perspective on a line of inner perfection. (See Part II.)
Geometry is an easy tool to use when analysing Smart’s paintings. Its lines are definite and measurable; but I hope it is clear from previous blogs that geometry is only part of Smart’s craft, and an aid to interpretation – such as to reinforce what Smart wanted us to see (e.g. The Vacant Allotment – see Part I), or from where he wanted us to view a painting’s main subjects (e.g. the Approach to the City III – see Part IV).
Smart emigrated to Italy in the early 1960s when other energetic and visionary young Australians also left the country. Smart was a late emigrant in comparison, leaving Australia when he was already 40 to live on a farm outside a provincial Tuscan city; others of a younger generation like Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes, had all left by their mid-20s, and eventually gravitated towards London and New York City.
By the time he moved, Smart had largely decided the artistic influences that let him follow his muse of the relationship between people and their built environment. In Italy he refined, rather than transformed, his technique – in effect trading one landscape for another. It may be one reason for Smart’s continued popularity in Australia and the lack of widespread recognition abroad. Another may be that Smart remained a representational painter who lived and worked in places that were peripheral to the major currents of post-War politics, industry, philosophy and art.
In the paintings of the 1940s we see little of the effect of World War II. In those of the late 1960s, for example, we see neither the Berlin Wall nor the Paris riots, neither the Russian tanks in Prague nor war in Vietnam or the protests against it, neither the counter-culture nor the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. We see neither the influence of the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock, the distorted and increasingly abstract figures of Henry Moore, nor the pop prints of Andy Warhol.
We can, however, see the effects of post-war reconstruction, renewed productivity and economic boom on modern living – the desperate and isolating effect of modern construction in Approach to the City III, the mystery of modern communication in Control Tower, and ideas of perfection, balance and ‘time-of-life’ in Morning Practice, Baia. And we can see the synthesised influence of the modernists in Paris up to around the 1920s, artists such as Kandinksy and Mondrian who influenced minimalist art in the 1960s – indirectly in the case of Kandinsky as a result of his teaching at the Bauhaus, and directly in the case of Mondrian for his abstract constructions.
The exhibition shows Smart as an interpreter of human landscapes rather than human activity, of scenes rather than events, of consequences rather than causes; an artist capable of refined and original synthesis rather than an innovator or artistic visionary; an artist who painted what he witnessed.
It also shows that up to the late 1960s, Smart refined the synthesis of his early influences into landscapes showing the darker and more mysterious consequences of urban development, of which Approach to the City III is the most intense example.
Yet a few years later, within the happiness of a new relationship, Smart’s canvasses became brighter and more optimistic, with a greater use of saturated primary colours, and scenes of familial warmth such as Factory Staff, Erehwyna (1972), optimistc self reflection in Self-Portrait at Papini’s (1984-85), the distant but jovial Clive James in his 1991 portrait and the luminous men in The Cleaners (2004).
In his book which accompanies the exhibition, Smart’s biographer, Barry Pearce, tags Smart as a master of stillness. I find it hard to relate to the term stillness, because while the landscape elements of Smart’s paintings imply silence or inaudibility, the human figures often imply or anticipate movement or change.
The Vacant Allotment shows a football game on a piece of land that is surely marked for development, and so shows incidental suburban activity while anticipating a much longer term change to the built environment. The Control Tower stands objectively above the airport, but we know that the tower is responsible for receiving and transmitting radio waves to and from aeroplanes – the signals sent and received are invisible while the planes are out of picture. The Container Train in Landscape invites us to experience its movement through the landscape by having us walk along its ten-metre length, and view each flat container as if it were passing us in the landscape.
Because many of his canvasses imply movement Smart does not so much appear to make his paintings ‘still’ as much as he seeks the perfect moment of suspension that can be illustrated at the Golden Mean. It is in those moments of suspension that Smart invites us to become the master of our own stillness, to unlock the secrets of his paintings and gain the perspective of time to discover the meaning in his work.