Jeffrey Smart and the Perspective of Time

Portrait of Clive James

The Tarrawarra Museum of Art’s retrospective of Jeffrey Smart’s work, which runs until 31 March 2013 and is exhibited in conjunction with the University of South Australia’s Samstag Museum of Art, includes the late-career Portrait of Clive James from 1991, 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 him 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 perhaps 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 only a matter of time before the viewer is in the sun.

Smart and James were born between the two World Wars, but are of different generations. Born in 1921 in Adelaide, Smart grew into the years marked by the Depression and 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 and included study with Fernand Leger in Paris, before he resettled 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 his current home, a farm near Arezzo in Tuscany.

By the time he arrived in Italy, he had already synthesised the major influences of geometric construction, and Australian and Parisian modernism, into a style that synthesised perspective with a sensitivity for flat planes, as he set out to interpret the relationship between people and their built environment. It was a style Smart refined in Italy rather than transformed, and possibly a reason why he has maintained a devoted following in Australia, and not achieved wider recognition.


Smart’s early works show the derivative influence of the Australian Russell Drysdale. Hindley Street at Evening (1944) appears a darker version of Drysdale’s Moody’s Pub (1941). The Wasteland (1945) reflects Drysdale’s approach in Deserted Town Hall (1942) in its depiction of a public building in a town devastated by climate.

Town Hall-Waste Land

He drew on cubism. The Salvagers of 1946 shows two figures resting on a shipyard scrap heap. The objects are recognisable – hulls, masts, drums and funnels – but there is a clarity that is partly achieved by stripping away unessential debris, defining each object by colour and treating objects as if they were little more than basic geometric shapes in perspective. This is not cubism. Smart uses one perspective uses a range of colours and basic shapes to represent a scrap heap which itself is comprised of many separate items. Cubists typically depicted one or two subjects in their component geometric parts from multiple perspectives, generally with a limited palette – as with Picasso’s Woman Playing a Mandolin. Smart’s use of geometric shapes to define, clarify and simplify discrete items of debris inverts the Cubist’s principle of making objects more abstract, but his careful use of simple shapes to construct the central subject – the scrap heap – show’s both his ability to use cubist principles in representational painting.

Salvagers and Picasso

Smart remained a representational painter all his life, but after his return from Europe in 1951 he used gestures of abstract art, such as those developed by Kandinsky and Mondrian, and also elements of unreality suggestive of the surrealists. Wallaroo (1951), shows an inexplicable tower with a full moon in the background in the wrong position – shadows from the sun show the moon is prematurely high, and the sun’s light shines perpendicular to the moon, not towards it. To the right of the picture an arc of pipe appears unconnected to any plumbing at the sand’s edge, and so serves no functional purpose in the scene, and is intersected by two poles which evoke Kandinsky’s use of arcs and lines in abstract works, such as such as those in Yellow Red Blue of 1925.

Smart and Kandinsky

The Vacant Allotment

If there is one painting in the exhibition which to me both synthesises Smart’s early influences and foreshadows his future work, it is The Vacant Allotment of 1947, painted the year before he first left for Europe. In a scene incidental to suburban life, the painting shows a young woman intently watching four athletic young men kicking a football in a vacant lot while her two companions sit disinterested on the grass. She stands with her feet and legs open, 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 they can see the action from her perspective.

The Vacant Allotment

The impressionistic figures recall the watchful, playful and statuesque bathers of Cezanne and Matisse, but here they are placed on a grassy field enclosed by a developing suburbia, rather than an idyllic pool. In Kapunda Mines (1946), 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, in 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 directions 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

Working in harmony with these affective techniques is Smart’s use of geometry to compose the scene, and one geometric ratio in particular – the Golden Mean. The Golden Mean occurs at a point on a line where, after dividing the line 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.

Golden Section

In The Vacant Allotment Smart’s uses it to emphasise the young woman’s interest in the men. He places the her left hip at the intersection of the Golden Mean as measured from the right side of the canvass, and also from the vertical half way mark, as if to show her interest in the men – coming from her hips – is sexual. From top to bottom, the Golden Mean line runs through the centre of the tallest building, a forbidding, windowless tower, dividing the picture left and right between the action in the vacant lot, and the road than runs down the hill in front of the terraced house.

From left to right the golden section line runs from the bottom of the terraced house’s balcony along the white edge of the fence, through the head of the young man on the right and the others’ torsos. It also insects with the oblique fence line running from the left of the canvass to the allotment’s back corner, midway between the men, and creates the space between them. A diagonal from the point where the viewer stands in front of the girl runs directly through that space.

The Vacant Allotment showing Golden Mean

Even without knowing about the Golden Mean, it is possible to see the woman’s interest and desire in the men, and it would be a mistake to look at Smart’s paintings in geometric terms alone. However, Smart’s use of this ratio is fundamental to his compositional technique – one he shares with artists and architects dating back at least to Ancient Greece, when the ratio was calculated – and helps in understanding the significant elements of his paintings.

Morning Practice, Baia

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.’ 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.

Marning Practice Baia 2

If we pondered only this, we might say the shadow is the crucial element of the painting, and 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 calm sea and joins with the grey sky above it.

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 he 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 from 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.

Morning Practice Baia 3

What now then is to ponder?

young-acrobat-on-a-ballAs 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 circus subjects. 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 (1904-06) in Morning Practice 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.

Picasso - The bathers.jpgIt is this playfulness that makes the figure closer to Picasso’s lithe Bathers of 1918 than the rose period works, because while Smart would have known they are more optimistic than the dark moods of the preceding ‘blue period’ (1901-1904), many of the rose period figures are poignant and express 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 how he had already lived? Or is he saying that in middle-life there 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 each morning as we become a day older.

Relationship with Built Environment

A key theme of Smart’s work that the Tarrawarra retrospective shows is his interpretation of people’s relationship with their built environment, and within this theme are those of solitude, alienation, isolation and communication, painted on sharp and saturated canvasses showing rural landscapes, overbuilt cities, and motifs of modern communications technology and large scale construction.

Smart paints inverse relationships between people and their environment to emphasise togetherness in remote areas, or solitude and isolation in the city. The small congregation outside an unassuming town hall in remote Paringa in 1951 is greater more than one would expect of a one-store town on a dirt road. In contrast, the watcher from a balcony in Holiday (1971), is the only human figure in a deserted complex of large apartment buildings, emphasising solitude in high density living.

Smart-Paringa and Holiday

Contiguous with the themes of isolation and remoteness, the exhibition includes several works showing Smart’s consistent interest in communications infrastructure. In an early work from 1944, Water Towers, Smart depicts two imposing towers in the foreground of a railway yard with a passing steam engine in the middle ground. Steam trains were the main mode of long-distance inland travel and freight in Australia for decades, and the towers represent a mystery. We do not see the water, or the engine working, nor do we see the tracks leading from one town to another, people greeting one another, or mail bags being unloaded; we see only the steam – the engine’s exhaust. In the end, we take its engineering for granted and trust in the illogical thought that the water in the towers brings us the civilising benefits of mechanisation.

Smart-Water Towers Control Tower

The same mystery is in Control Tower (1969), painted 25 years later in Rome – from where, in a period of expanding air travel and quickening of transport communications, planes are guided to and from the city; but we see neither the planes nor the signals that control them. Other works – The Listeners (1965) and Rooftops (1968-69) – show radio communication towers with an uncertain or indolent reclining figure, directly below the tower, who is unable to detect or interpret the transmissions without a receiver. They invite us to reflect on how distant we are from the apparatus of modern communications and how isolating or bewildering the experience can be.

In Italy Smart transmogrified the towers into apartment buildings whose imposingly tall, repetitious and unadorned façades show the compartmentalisation of human and question our ability to live and embrace a fulfilling life. A poignant and desperate work, Approach to a City III (1969) shows an elderly couple slowly traversing a major city overpass en route to an apartment building. Smart emphasises their fragility by directing the viewer to stand on the thin median strip separating the directions of traffic and look across not only the road but the chasm between the overpass and the building that indicates the couple still has miles to walk.

Smart-Approach to City

Consistent with his use of geometry to structure his paintings, Smart places the couple within a triangle created by the intersection of the Golden Means from the left and top of the picture, and the diagonal from the centre of the median strip and the top right corner of the canvass. It is a more pessimistic painting than others that contain apartment complexes, whose mood ranges include quizzical uncertainty in The Traveller (1973) and optimism of the 1972 work Factory Staff, Erehwyna (1972).

The Flat Plane and later works

Neither abstraction or surrealism figure as major themes for Smart, but he did not neglect their usefulness. The Dome (1977) suggests the surrealist element of free association, as Smart juxtaposes a mature tree in a field of grass and Michelangelo’s dome of St Peter’s, Rome, which appears inexplicably over the horizon. The extent to which this is surrealist on the basis of ‘free’ association, however, is debatable as Smart also appears to be consciously equating the natural design of the tree with the engineered dome. The incongruous poles recalls those used in Wallaroo as a seemingly abstract gesture, and adds to a sense of unreality about the picture, as well as creating tension between the direction of perspective, which runs right to left, and the dome’s placement exactly between them on the straight horizontal plane. In this way Smart creates tension between a desire for perspective, flatness and asymmetry with the tree standing to the left of the dome.

Smart-The Dome

The theme of flatness is one common to Australian artists who must interpret a flat continent. Perhaps the best known Australian artists of non-indigenous background whose works either do, or almost, admonish perspective are Fred Williams and John Olsen, but others like Welsh-born John Beard sought to understand Australia’s deep-cut outback gorges amidst flat earth before offering a more impressionist kind of perspective in his depictions of Sydney Harbour.

The Tarrawarra exhibition shows Smart as an artist who interprets the idea of a flat plane, while remaining devoted to representational painting and perspective. The three works in the Tarrawarra exhibition stand out to me – The Directors, painted in Italy in 1977, and the five-panelled panorama Container Train in Landscape  and Morning, Yarragon Siding, both done in 1983-84 following a trip to Australia.


The Directors is about two metres by a half-metre and Smart uses the device of a ‘flat plane’ to position the viewer in one of two places – in front of the container truck, whose back is parallel with the picture’s horizontal plane, and in front of the right-most arrow, also parallel with the horizontal plane and so large it draws the viewer up close to the canvass. With these two planes, Smart asks the viewer to see the panorama from two different positions, or two different perspectives, left and right. The Directors has two motifs that form a continuous horizontal band – the arrowed signs and the distant apartments. Their patterns are simple and repeated and this may show the influence of minimalism which emerged in New York in the 1960s, the city which replaced Paris as the capital of artistic innovation after World War II.

Smart-Container Train

In a similar way to The Directors, the containers in The Container Train in Landscape are painted on a flat plain across 10 metres and five panels. Although the landscape itself is in perspective, no shipping container has an oblique angle, and so where-ever the viewer stands they see a container as though they are directly in front of it. This device cleverly creates movement – not of the train, but of the viewer, who sees each container passing by as if directly in front of them as they move along the panels. In a similar way to The Dome, Smart creates tension between a landscape in perspective and a flat horizontal plane working across it. A second way Smart achieves flatness is by saturating the colour of each container in unusually bright colours. The effect may be bright and playful, but underlying this facade is the idea that each carriage is unblemished, and this impossible novelty is to say they are perfect, or timeless; in essence – flat.

Finally, the flatness of the foreground elements of Morning, Yarragon Siding echo’s the influence of Mondrian’s constructions. Smart places himself at eye level of a train platform and the platform shed. The only evidence of perspective is from the shadows cast from the unseen roof, the unusually vibrant and un-rusted drums and platform’s overhang. If the sun were shining directly from the front of the platform, the only depth would be from the town and hillsides in the background. The perpendicular lines that show the construction of the platform and shed, together with Smart’s use of a single colour in each segment of the shed’s wall, recall Mondrian’s compartmentalisation of colour in flat-planed constructions.

Smart-Yarragon and Mondrian Mock-up

The Perspective of Time

The Tarrawarra exhibition shows Smart as an interpreter of solitude and the relationship between people and their built environment, apposite for a man who grew up in a city whose geographical isolation allowed South Australia’s towns to be still treated as a romantic, yet civilised, frontier. It shows him as an artist who synthesised the influences of contemporary Australian artists and those Parisian modernists who, from the late 18th century through to the interwar period, transformed art from impressionist landscapes to flat abstract constructions that destroyed perspective.

In working simultaneously with perspective and flatness, Smart subtly marries a range of contradictions or dualities across his career: portraiture in the landscape in the Portrait of Clive James (1991), the silence of modern communications in Control Tower and The Listeners, and crossed relations between the direction of perspective and light in paintings such as Morning Practice, Baia (1969) and The Vacant Allotment (1947).

His works offer meaning through geometric construction and at the heart of his technique lies the Golden Mean. Morning Practice, Baia is the best example, where the vanishing point intersects with the line of sight between the man and his cube, a line which is itself an inner Golden Mean of the canvass – thus placing the point from which we gain perspective on a line of inner perfection.

Smart emigrated from Australia to Italy in the early 1960s where he refined, rather than transformed, his technique, effectively trading one landscape for another. It may be one reason for Smart’s continued popularity in Australia and lack of widespread recognition abroad. Another may be that Smart remained a representational painter – a conservative approach in comparison with major artistic movement like abstract expressionism and minimalism – 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 1960s we see neither the Berlin Wall nor the Paris riots, neither the Russian tanks in Prague nor the half-million American soldiers in Vietnam, neither the counter-culture nor civil rights movements. 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.

Smart-Self Portrait Papinis

Up to the late 1960s we see the darker, more mysterious consequences of urban development, of which Approach to the City III is the most intense example. Yet soon after, happy in a new relationship, the paintings became more optimistic, with a greater use of saturated primary colours, and scenes of familial warmth in Factory Staff, Erehwyna (1972), optimistc self reflection in Self-Portrait at Papini’s (1984-85), the jovial Clive James (1991) and the luminous men in The Cleaners (2004) – all of them in the Tarrawarra exhibition

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 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 at the same time 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 them ‘still’ so much as to find the perfect moment of suspension that can be painted onto the the canvass, often at a Golden Mean. It is in those moments of suspension that Smart invites us to become the master of our own stillness, unlock the secrets of his paintings and gain the perspective of time to discover the meaning in his work.


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