TarraWarra Museum of Art
DEPARTURE AND RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL PAINTER
In 2011 the University of South Australia conferred an honorary degree on the South Australian School of Art’s greatest alumnus, Jeffrey Smart. That distinction was followed with a retrospective of the artist, perhaps the last within his lifetime. Symbolically, it was a return to where it all began for him, shown in two parts: his early South Australian work of the 1940s at Carrick Hill; and paintings following his departure from Adelaide in 1951 at the Samstag Art Museum. The second part, summarizing the mature imagery for which Smart is most best known, has been scheduled for tour to the TarraWarra Art Museum in Victoria.
During his formative years of the 1940s in Adelaide, where as a young teacher Smart impressed his
students by claiming brazenly he would soon spend a period in Sydney, and then live in Italy, probably for good, he surprised them with his certainty. It seemed as if he had mapped out a journey of his entire future. Somehow, he felt, he was not going to get anywhere as an artist by staying put in the city of his birth, and he was determined to carry out his intention.
In 1948 he took his first adult trip abroad, arriving in London, then travelling to Paris the following year, studying at La Grande Chaumière, and Academie Montmartre under Fernand Léger, his first direct acquaintance with a living European master. He visited Cezanne’s studio in the south of France, and spent some time in Holland where he encountered the works of Vermeer and Mondrian, whose measured spaces, in conjunction with Léger, appealed to his innate sensibility. In Florence he was entranced by the frescoes of Fra Angelico, in Rome overwhelmed by the Raphael Stanze in the Vatican, and of course the works of Piero della Francesca in Tuscany. He went to Naples, and joined two fellow South Australian artists on the island of Ischia.
Two years later he was back in Adelaide, having soaked up the great works of Europe, classical and modern, sharing a feeling amongst fellow Australians that they lived too far away from the great art of the world, but who were themselves hesitant about leaving their homeland forever. Financially constrained, he was more fiercely determined. Moving to Sydney in 1951, he became a teacher of repute and a media star – famous Phidias of the ABC program The Argonauts – and at the same time began to evolve a distinctive otherworldly, architectonic style. It is from this crucial period we may see at TarraWarra his vision unfold over the next sixty years. Just as he had declared nearly two decades earlier, he departed Sydney in 1963 to paint full-time, and live close to the inspiration he had long yearned for, in Italy.
But this kind of wilful immersion in the world at large by Australia’s iconic master of the urban vision may distract us from appreciating the influence of his hometown well before he got to Europe. Adelaide has a particular topography which embedded itself in Smart’s visual life as a child. In the still light of a city set out on a grid with long straight lines and vanishing points, couched by hills that appear as in a painting by Piero - fertile ground for a metaphysical vision - is where Jeffrey Smart was born in 1921 and substantially formed as a painter.
Indeed if we were to identify one influence above all others that shaped his way forward, it would be during the Depression when his parents were forced to move from their comfortable home in Hawthorn to a small flat in South Terrace. It was not the view of lush parklands seen from the front balcony that arrested Smart’s interest. Rather it was the view from the kitchen at rooftops, lanes, backyards and distant high rise buildings that became his child’s heavenly labyrinth, hard-wired in him for the painter he would turn out to be.
Now is the perfect moment to survey his work and bring some kind of conclusive reflection to the vision of one of Australia’s most important living painters. For at the age of ninety-one he has recently retired from painting, and for the first time it is possible to define his career from beginning to end through a broad selection including many of Smart’s most iconic masterpieces.
His period in Sydney from 1951-63 for example is crowned by the majestic Cahill Expressway, with its inscrutable fat, balding man standing at Sydney’s crucial traffic nexus between the State Library and the Harbour Bridge. Then follows a sequence of compositions across his last five decades in Italy, painted in Rome, and Tuscany, where he still resides near Arezzo. We follow his crusade, inspired by the geometric patterns of apartment blocks complemented by brilliantly coloured squares, circles and letters of road signs and construction sites - all emanating from a wave of brilliant industrial design in a country at last recovering from the debilitations of a World War - to create an entirely new vernacular of modern painting, and a new kind of aesthetic. He confronted this universe of technology and architecture anywhere his travels took him, declaring it was beautiful, and became its most passionate poet.
Amongst many paintings in this retrospective which have not had public airing for a very long time, there are two in particular of note; one not seen in Australia for over forty years; the other never before exhibited. The first is Morning practice, Baia 1969, first shown in Sydney, then London where it was acquired by a collector who eventually took it to the United States. Painted at the pivotal centre of the artist’s career, depicting a man on his back balancing a cube flooded in glorious eternal daylight in a precinct that was once an ancient flesh-pot on the Bay of Naples, Smart has long considered this may be his most important work.
The other is his last recorded, Labyrinth 2011. A vast stone maze stretches as far as the eye can see, calculus for the continuum of the universe. Within it a portrait of H.G. Wells, prophet of tomorrow, stands in the cross-hairs of the Golden Mean, evoking for Smart his discovery of the poetry of T.S. Eliot that fired his intellectual life in Adelaide all those decades ago when he began to ponder the conundrum of time and movement and stillness, and the significance of dreams. But the esoteric geometry of this intriguing last masterpiece transports us back even further, to a childhood immersion in the inner city that set his spiritual compass.
For most of his life Jeffrey Smart has pursued an elusive Holy Grail of the ideal painting. Never satisfied with the one just completed, he always wondered if the next on his easel would represent the end of the chase. Perhaps now, at last, Labyrinth is the one that says it all, and which brings his vision full circle.
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Curator of Master of stillness: Jeffrey Smart paintings 1940-2012
Samstag Museum of Art, and TarraWarra Museum of Modern Art
- Title: Master of Stillness: Jeffrey Smart Paintings 1940-2011
- Artist: Jeffrey Smart
- Type of Show: painting
- Date: Dec 21, 2012 to Mar 31, 2013
- Time: t-S 11am-5pm