Bruce Beresford and Ermes De Zan on Jeffrey Smart
Join Jeffrey Smart’s partner, Ermes De Zan and former student and friend, filmmaker Bruce Beresford, in conversation with exhibition curators Dr Deborah Hart and Dr Rebecca Edwards, as they share personal insights into the artist’s life and work.
Jeffrey Smart was exhibited at the National Gallery from 11 December 2021 – 15 May 2022 to celebrate 100 years since the artist's birth. The exhibition explores the artist’s working methods and the trajectory of his life from Adelaide to Sydney and to Italy, where he lived from 1964 until his death in 2013.
Following from the Curators' Introduction, this conversation further explores the artist’s life in Australia and Italy. From 1975, Smart and De Zan lived together at Posticcia Nuova, a beautiful old farmhouse near Arezzo in Tuscany. Their home was a meeting place for many friends and guests from Australia and around the world. De Zan, who was born in Italy but grew up in Australia, shared Smart’s passion for art, music and architecture. Oscar nominated filmmaker Beresford first met Smart as a student at Sydney’s The Kings School in the 1950s and later became a frequent visitor to Smart and De Zan’s Tuscan home until the artist’s death in 2013.
This accessible livestream conversation is presented in partnership with the American Friends of the National Gallery of Australia.
DEBORAH HART: Welcome to the National Gallery of Australia. Thank you for joining us on the occasion of this special in conversation livestream to coincide with the Jeffrey Smart exhibition. I'm here at the National Gallery with my colleague Rebecca Edwards. My name is Deborah Hart and we are the co curators of the exhibition.
I'd like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which Rebecca and I are meeting, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri lands of Canberra, on which we meet. It is a great pleasure today to actually be able to welcome two very special guests who are joining us to really celebrate, to think about, to engage with the work and life of Jeffrey Smart. And our first guest is Ermes De Zan and he is joining us with Bruce Beresford on Gadigal land in Sydney.
Ermes De Zan was the partner of Jeffrey Smart for some 40 years. And, Ermes, it's just wonderful to have you with us. I know that you were deeply steeped in the visual arts before you met Jeffrey and we're really looking forward to your insights tonight. So thank you for being with us.
I'd also like to welcome Bruce Beresford, the renowned film director, the winner of Academy Awards for 'Driving Miss Daisy', who has brought us such wonderful films over the years as 'Breaker Morant', and I think it's about 30 films, Bruce, that you've directed. Bruce is in his splendid red jacket and we're really delighted to welcome you here tonight as well.
REBECCA EDWARDS: Now, this conversation is supported by our wonderful American Friends of the National Gallery of Australia and their mission is to foster the visual arts and cultural exchanges between the United States and Australia, creating closer ties between our two countries. The current President of American Friends is Michael Maher, who is a documentary filmmaker, author and producer with 25 years experience as a foreign correspondent, and in 2005 he travelled to Italy and interviewed Jeffrey in Tuscany for the ABC in what transpired to be one of his final interviews.
So tonight's conversation is something that he has been very passionate about, he's been very supportive of and he's really been instrumental in the development of this livestream conversation today. So we'll now cross to Michael, who joins us with a message from New York.
MICHAEL MAHER: Hello from New York, everyone. My name is Michael Maher and I'm the President of the American Friends of the National Gallery. Our mission here in the United States is to promote the Gallery's magnificent collection and to bring to the attention of as many Americans as possible just how remarkable this pre eminent Australian, indeed global, cultural institution is.
The current Jeffrey Smart exhibition is an excellent example of the superb curatorial skills, scholarship and creativity that make the NGA such an outstanding place and it's my great pleasure today to help introduce this panel discussion, which, of course, will be streamed to our audience here in the US.
I got to know Jeffrey Smart a little during the course of making a documentary about him back in 2005, and I have to say it really was such a professional and personal treat. Jeffrey was 84 at the time we were filming but still possessed of an intoxicating exuberance for painting, for music, for literature, for travel and, of course, for wine, food and good conversation. Dining with Jeffrey and his partner, Ermes, in the loggia of their beautiful home in Tuscany was a great experience and must have been akin to what the Round Table lunches at the Algonquin Hotel in New York in the 1920s would have been like. I'm sure Dorothy Parker would have approved. The rapier like banter was relentless. The guests might include Germaine Greer, Bruce Beresford or Barry Humphries, and no quarter was given to those who weren't familiar with a particular line from a TS Eliot poem or an aria in Wagner's 'Ring Cycle'. I, of course, was guilty on both accounts but thankfully was quickly forgiven and spent many captivating hours filming Jeffrey at the easel in his studio, sketching from his car as he drove through the light industrial areas surrounding Arezzo, which he referred to as his happy hunting grounds, and walking through the beautiful gardens that Ermes nurtured over so many years, trailed by their much loved pug dogs.
Some artists find being filmed an intrusion. Not so Jeffrey Smart. Here was an artist approaching the end of a remarkable life and it was clear he had a generous desire to share the story of his creative journey with us all. Many people like me had the pleasure of making Jeffrey's acquaintance over his long life, but the two people on our panel today Ermes De Zan and Bruce Beresford were at the very heart of Jeffrey's inner circle. They knew him intimately. They were his partner and his dear friend.
I think all of us have a fascination to know more about the lives of the artists whose work moves us to help us better understand what compels them to embark upon their creative journeys and, perhaps more importantly, what it is about them that enables them to sustain that often fraught journey. The novelist Graham Greene famously said of his creative journey that writing is a form of therapy. "Sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint", Greene said, "can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation".
Well, Jeffrey Smart, of course, was famously enigmatic when it came to talking about his work so I think we are truly fortunate indeed today to have Ermes and Bruce, who have so kindly agreed to share some of their recollections and insights into the crowded life of this major artist whose work the National Gallery is now celebrating.
REBECCA: Thanks so much for that, Michael, and again thank you so much for your support of tonight's live conversation. Now, if you are watching this livestream, we will be having questions at the end, and if you have any questions for either of our speakers throughout tonight's talk, then please use sli.do, the sli.do link on the events page, or the Facebook chat function on your Facebook and we will get to those at the end.
But let's get straight into it. Bruce, I'm actually going to start with you because you've known Jeffrey for a very long time but you actually knew him first. So I'd be really interested to hear a bit about your first encounters with Jeffrey. You met both as quite young men. So if you could maybe take us through the first time you met Jeffrey and the circumstances and kind of your history in those early years.
ERMES: Did you get that?
BRUCE: No, I didn't get it at all. I can't hear it.
ERMES: How did you meet Jeffrey.
BRUCE: How did I meet Jeffrey?
REBECCA: Tell us about how you met Jeffrey.
BRUCE BERESFORD: I heard that! Well, Jeffrey was actually the art master at my school in Sydney and I met him because I wasn't actually in the art class but I had a friend who was, and I noticed that I used to go there to meet my friend and Jeffrey was always I noticed he had a very good relationship with the students. He explained everything very clearly. He was very quite unlike the other teachers at the school. He was very much sort of on the same level as the boys. I don't mean that it was infantile. I mean, he treated them with respect and he answered their questions and he would go into detail.
Now, although I met him there over a couple of years, we were never really friends, of course. It was impossible. But then I met him later. I was working for the ABC and I was an assistant cameraman, which meant I had to carry all the heavy equipment, but I was very young and very strong in those days. And we were sent to a gallery in Sydney. There was a big exhibition on. I didn't even know what it was. And when I got there, I was astonished. It was Jeffrey Smart. There were all these wonderful paintings of things I'd never seen painted before, the images that I didn't know people ever even painted, because he painted really the modern world. He painted modern buildings and signs and all sorts of things that I never thought of as subjects for art, but he did. And he made them into great art, and I was very excited by that. He remembered me from school. He said, "Oh, Beresford, the boy who's interested in films", and I said, "Yes, that's me".
Then a few years after that, I was off to London. I'd graduated from university. And Jeffrey was on the same boat and we spent the whole of that six week trip to Italy chatting, talking, and I heard Jeffrey had so many wonderful stories, not just about painting and painters but about people, and we became friends and remained friends until Jeffrey died. And I spent with my wife and I, we used to go and stay with Jeffrey a lot in Arezzo and it was always exciting. It was always exciting there to hear him talking about art. He made me really understand the values of composition, of colour, of detail. I mean, he was tremendously knowledgeable. And then to see him working himself, you realised that I used to sit in his studio as he painted, and every time, it was tremendously exciting. I was tremendously excited. I thought this is a great artist. It was amazing to see him put these works together, an enormous amount of detail, and a lot of study and a lot of skill went into it.
DEBORAH: Thank you. Thank you, Bruce. That's wonderful. And you've already introduced us to this idea of Italy and it's something we really thought about obviously in the exhibition, which starts with a little group of self portraits, and we do have one and, Ermes, I'm really eternally indebted to you for that wonderful 'Self Portrait, Procida' 1951 that Jeffrey painted not long after he got back from Italy, from his first trip before he went back on the boat with Bruce.
And I think one of the things we really loved about that painting is the way that it situates Jeffrey in Italy and, of course, he lived there from 1964 with you, Ermes, for four decades, albeit with lots of travel and trips back to Australia. But I wonder if we could start with you, Ermes, and then maybe move to Bruce to think about what it was about Italy that really appealed to Jeffrey.
ERMES DE ZAN: Well, Deborah, I think to put the record straight, Jeffrey always remembered going to Italy when he was four years old, when his father did the grand tour, and the thing he remembered most was Venice and the Italian food. That really sold him on Italy. But to get back to the time he spent in Ischia, I think it was just the incredible lifestyle there and the forms. You just have to look at the architecture in Italy. It wasn't out of suburbia London transformed. It was Mediterranean and it was the purity of the architecture.
BRUCE: I remember he said to me once, "I love Italy because it's a very modern country", and I hadn't really thought of that. I'd always thought of Renaissance Italy and the Roman Italy and all that sort of thing, but when Jeffrey said that, I realised he was right. It was the modern buildings, the architecture, the sign, so much of the contemporary Italian lifestyle, the look of contemporary Italy, that he found very exciting.
ERMES: And also the contrast of the old with the upcoming new of the apartment blocks.
BRUCE: But he loved I mean, he painted Italian factories and advertisements. I mean, he was fascinated by them. And I always thought that was great because, as I said before, it was the sort of he had a genre, he had a style of painting, that other people didn't have. He saw the world in a different way, which I think is something all great artists do. I mean, look at the fence there with the
ERMES: The Gioconda.
BRUCE: The Gioconda. The 'Corrugated Gioconda'. I mean, the whole concept of it is so brilliant and with that modern building in the background. I mean, it's so extraordinarily clever. You think: how does someone think of that and then have the technical skill to be able to paint it?
ERMES: That's the important thing.
BRUCE: It certainly is.
ERMES: I mean, he was so well trained that he could just bring it off.
DEBORAH: That's so interesting.
BRUCE: It's wonderful having that technical skill without being a photographer because the paintings they're not really the paintings of someone they don't look like photographs.
BRUCE: Which a lot of painters who have a technical skill do end up making paintings that look like photographs but Jeffrey's never did.
DEBORAH: Yes, I think that's right and it is partly about what he leaves out as much as what he puts in and that incredible stillness that comes through in this modern environment. It's interesting that at the same time he was so fascinated by the history of art and de Chirico and going back further, Piero della Francesca, but at the same time he's really bringing his way of working, as you say, very much into the modern world. So over to you.
REBECCA: We might now
BRUCE: His knowledge of the history of art was staggering.
ERMES: Phenomenal, and also interest in ancient civilisation and the trips to Greece and to Egypt.
BRUCE: Actually, he was a very well informed man in a huge variety of subjects.
BRUCE: Also music, philosophy, poetry.
ERMES: Poetry. Poetry was his second love.
REBECCA: Well, we might now turn to you, Ermes. We've sort of set up how Bruce and Jeffrey met and came to know each other but, of course, you met Jeffrey in Italy. We're talking about Italy at the moment. You met many years later in Italy. So I wonder if you could talk through that first encounter but also I think it is really interesting and important that, of course, you were so grounded in art training as well. Many people won't know that you did train as an artist, and for the two of you, that's such a connecting factor, that mutual love of art and culture, and in a way it really, I guess, brought you together. So could you perhaps tell the audience a bit about how the two of you met and came to be together?
ERMES: Well, how I met Jeffrey?
ERMES: I met Jeffrey very briefly when I'd taken up a scholarship to go to Yale and dropped off in Rome just briefly, and I was at Justin O'Brien's and Jeffrey sort of came in and said hello and I left. And then I received a letter in 1974, the end of '74, to ask if that he'd had my name from the art critic in Melbourne, Michael Shannon, to ask if I would turn up for the summer holidays in Tuscany to help Jeffrey paint this mural. And, of course, then we had the oil crisis and the commission fell through, but Jeffrey said, "Come anyway because there's an empty studio here". And I went and sort of and that was that.
Then I had to go back to Yale. I had a teaching job at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. But Jeffrey was very clever. He said, "Well, come over for the Christmas holidays", which I did. Of course, the winter is fabulous in Tuscany. And I will always remember seeing the Piero, the Madonna del Parto. When you saw it in the actual cemetery, it was fantastic, wonderful, and going up to the Bibbiena to see the Saint Francis where Saint Francis received the Stigmata. You know, all this history was just so incredible.
So then I had to go back and then, of course, he asked me to meet him in London at Easter, which was fantastic. Opera. The St Matthew Passion with Janet Baker. You know, the whole lot. And then came back permanently after the year finished. And I remember I went through Washington when the big bicentenary was going on, and then never looked back. Jeffrey met me at Savona because I was on a Yugoslav transport ship. Jeffrey said, "Oh, you have to get a cargo ship to bring all your fans and tea sets"! So that was the only way to get them. Very Adelaide, I think!
DEBORAH: That's wonderful. And so it's so interesting thinking about the place that you had in Tuscany, Posticcia Nuova. Such an amazing house and studio. It would be good to tell us a little bit about the house and the studio that Jeffrey worked in, but also both of your memories of the place and the friends who gathered there. So it would be lovely to hear your reminiscences of what Posticcia Nuova was like.
ERMES: This could go on for a while! Very briefly, Posticcia Nuova was a farmhouse that when Jeffrey moved in, it didn't have running water. It had no electricity.
BRUCE: And the ground floor was used to store cattle, wasn't it?
ERMES: The cattle lived downstairs. So, anyway, that was all and just by the studio there, there were two huge cement silos for the grain, which Jeffrey made sure that whenever it was photographed, you avoided photographing the silos. But Jeffrey just really renovated the place beautifully and kept it all looking natural. But when we finally got the place habitable, of course a lot of people would turn up. But there was a lot of work.
BRUCE: There was. I was always impressed one of the things that most impressed me about Jeffrey was his industry. He painted every day, didn't he?
BRUCE: He painted in that studio from early in the morning until 6 at night and nothing would stop him. I remember calling him once from the railway station at Arezzo and said, "Jeffrey, I've arrived. Can you come and pick me up?" and he said, "No, I'm painting".
ERMES: "Get a taxi".
BRUCE: "Get a taxi"! He wouldn't nothing would get him away. I mean, there's a lot of work, to put it mildly, in those paintings. But the fact that he worked so hard and was so focused made a huge impression on me and I realised how I this is what I had to do with my life. I realised that I had to work like that, that you really had to divide your life up. I mean, there's work and there's friends and conviviality. And once Jeffrey finished in the day, people would come for dinner and it was always wonderful. There were people there, amusing people from all over the world. Jeffrey made a lot of friends, and no wonder because he had the most attractive and outgoing personality and was knowledgeable without ever without ever over dominating the conversation. He let other people talk and express their views. He was really an immensely kind man.
ERMES: Very generous. Absolutely. I mean, you know, just food, drink, whatever. Entertainment was always laid on.
REBECCA: It's interesting. We can see Barry Humphries in the background there, one of the many friends that visited and came to Posticcia Nuova, but, of course, there's also a really interesting and quite a vibrant community of ex pats in the area where you were living and many of them actually feature in some of Jeffrey's paintings, and some of those are on display in the exhibition. I'm thinking in particular of the paintings of David Malouf, for example, or Germaine Greer. So could you perhaps talk to us a little bit about those works and how they came about? I assume perhaps the actual sort of circumstances around their making would have been full of dinners and conversation as well as the actual sittings themselves.
ERMES: I think the paintings he put of actual people you really need an excuse to have a figure in a painting, and then would decide to put a person in. Like, he wanted a figure on that wall, with Germaine sitting down, with Germaine.
BRUCE: It was amazing how I thought some of those portraits were so fascinating. I mean, the one of Margaret Olley. I remember when they went to Paris and he did paint her in The Louvre but he painted her in a room that was being redecorated. And she's quite a small figure but it's a very, very telling likeness, and I thought that was interesting placing her in that. And the one of Clive James where he's way in the distance, but when you look up very close, he has got not just a likeness but he's got Clive's character. He's got Clive's intensity and also Clive's humour in a tiny, little picture. I thought that was quite amazing.
DEBORAH: Yes. And I think the preciseness, as you say, Bruce, with which that portrait is painted, even though he'd done these bigger studies beforehand, and also in that portrait of Germaine Greer, is very, very finely painted and contained. It's such an interesting way that he's done that with the vibrant colour on either side and that graffiti of the R, which seems to express something of the other side of Germaine's personality, which was kind of so outgoing and she had so much to say. But the portrait itself is painted really with a great sense of containment and with a great likeness.
BRUCE: I remember asking Jeffrey I remember asking Jeffrey if the big R meant 'ratbag'. (Laughs)
ERMES: But he said no.
BRUCE: He said, "No, absolutely not! I don't think she's a ratbag".
DEBORAH: I think you've touched on something which we thought a lot about in the exhibition, which is that Jeffrey really especially as time went on, he didn't like to tell stories about his work. He liked to leave things open ended, and so like with that question of the R, there's the sense that and it's interesting, I guess, from a filmic point of view or a theatrical point of view that he sets the stage and gives us the props but it's like we have to bring ourselves to the painting, and I think that was a very clever strategy because you don't shut it down too quickly. It opens it up for interpretation. Would you agree with that?
ERMES: I think all great art leaves it open so that you bring your own interpretation into it. And I think that's specifically with Jeffrey what is the figure doing there? It's not there just for balance or for proportion. I think it also sets a mood.
ERMES: So that even the portrait of Germaine, even though the primary colours he's playing with the sort of abstract qualities of the painting, but it's all a very, very deep interpretation that you can have about the painting. What is she doing there just sitting, waiting? And is she there to counter the primary red and yellow and blue? I think it's an incredible composition.
BRUCE: Of course, that's what's so exciting too about his pictures, that you never really get tired of looking at them. I mean, the amount of time I still spend going through books of Jeffrey's pictures and then the excitement of going to Canberra and looking at them, so many of them, live there. You can see them over and over and over again, which is just fabulous. The detail in them is superb. The concepts are so superb. I think even those portrait ones, the way he set people is so clever. Look at David Malouf, who he painted as a kind of man
ERMES: An oil worker.
BRUCE: Yes, a worker in an airport.
REBECCA: Interesting actually maybe looping back to that portrait of David Malouf because you'd be quite familiar with this one, Ermes, because you were, in fact, the model in the original study for the painting. Could you maybe talk about that process a little bit?
ERMES: I think Jeffrey must have been inspired by seeing workers in, say, a petrol pump situation and had me modelling for it.
REBECCA: Here you can see it on screen now.
ERMES: And it turned into a very interesting painting. And then he thought, "No, I can use that and expand it". He wanted to expand the actual composition away from being a vertical composition to more square and that's when he decided to put David Malouf's profile in. I don't think David ever modelled in that
REBECCA: Not in that setting, I assume!
ERMES: I did all that.
DEBORAH: I think he said he was very surprised to see himself turn up in that garb, including those wonderful blue shoes. But, again, the interesting cleverness of the concept which you see when you spend time with the work. David said it was almost like the little thought bubbles coming out of his head on the building, and on the building is the word 'Ovidio', and, of course, David had just won an award for his wonderful novel 'An Imaginary Life' that referred to Ovid. So it's like these two worlds meeting, and David said how much he felt that he entered Jeffrey's world, which I thought was great, and it's almost like he's channelling inspiration through that extraordinary pipe that's coming out at us. So again very interesting and clever ideas.
REBECCA: And, I mean, Jeffrey later, he did paint
BRUCE: And also
REBECCA: No, go, Bruce.
BRUCE: I was going to say it conveys also to me the sort of preciseness of David Malouf and the intellectual quality that he has, so strikingly, even though he's done as a workman in overalls.
ERMES: But it's the drapery of the overalls and everything. It's the whole concept. It's just brilliant. And it does work in a much more interesting way than in the early one, the study of me, which was a vertical composition. So you can see why Jeffrey had to expand it.
BRUCE: But if you look at his studies for almost anything, it's interesting the development that goes through them.
ERMES: Oh, yes. The sketches and also doing the oil study.
DEBORAH: And actually, Ermes, I know that when we spoke previously, that wonderful later portrait of yours in the exhibition, 'The two up game', you've said that this is one that you feel is really the one true portrait that Jeffrey did, even though we do have the image of you in Sydney with the wonderful red socks that you're wearing. But can you talk to us about the contrast of that early work and then the later one, which I know you love.
ERMES: The red socks I mean, Jeffrey had seen the landscape and the building and the traffic lights and needed a figure to really work with the green lawn. And we got a whole lot of mattresses and things and I posed in Tuscany in that situation for weeks...(Laughter)...for Jeffrey to do that portrait. But it's not really what you'd say is a portrait. I mean, he just needed a figure on that grassy mound.
BRUCE: Well, to Jeffrey, of course, composition the number of times he told me about the importance of composition and showed me took me to galleries, in fact. I remember we once went to Liverpool to look at an exhibition of Alma Tadema and he said, "Look at the way he's composed this. Look at the way he's composed that. Look where he's placed the hand there instead of there" and he was so aware of every nuance of the composition, and his own compositions were so meticulously worked out. It makes me angry when I look at so many painters where
ERMES: Well, he loved Alma Tadema's bravura when you see the two women in Capri at Tiberius's villa looking down and you almost feel vertigo because right down there is the sea.
BRUCE: It's so brilliantly painted.
ERMES: With the triremes. It's incredible to be able to bring off that perspective. You just need the skill to do that.
BRUCE: Yes. That exhibition was fantastic. And I don't think it ever went anywhere. It was only in Liverpool.
ERMES: No, and I missed it because I had to look after the pugs.
BRUCE: Oh, well, I went up with Jeffrey by train. We had a great time!
DEBORAH: That's wonderful. And just wondering if we can also just have a quick look at that later portrait of you, Ermes, which is a very sensitive portrait, I think, where again you've entered Jeffrey's world, and I know I'm probably reading too much into this but I can't help but thinking that 'The two up game' is like the chance, the chance of meeting the great partner of your life. But anyway. Can you tell us a little bit about that painting and how you feel about it.
ERMES: Well, I think he really arrived at the point where he did want to do a portrait of me and just was sketching away. The containers he actually went to Genoa and stayed with a dear friend of ours and would go down to the docks and sketch. He was there for a week or so. So he had all that material and then worked on this composition, and, of course, it needed a figure up on the foreground and so he put me in it.
BRUCE: Did he ever talk to you about 'The two up game' because that's not an Italian game
ERMES: No, no. It's something during the war in Australia.
BRUCE: Yes. Did he ever mention why he put that
ERMES: Not really, no.
BRUCE: It is, it's fascinating, though.
DEBORAH: Actually there's another work in the exhibition which I must admit I was quite struck, Bruce, when you came to see the show. It's a work called 'The construction fence' and it's a very dramatic work. It's really it contrasts to the first room that's so tonal and then you get to this vibrant colour. But the girl running, can you tell us a little bit about who that is and your response to that painting when you saw it?
BRUCE: The girl running is my daughter Cordelia when she was about 10, I think, or 11. And Jeffrey actually called me from Arezzo I was in Sydney and he said, "I need a girl running and I need to capture her in motion, which" he said "is very hard for me to do. I need a photograph that does it". So I called Don McAlpine, the great cameraman who photographed 'Breaker Morant', and I said, "Can you come over with a stills camera and I'm going to get Cordelia to run along the fence". And we took hundreds of photographs of her running and then we posted them to Jeffrey, because this was before the internet, and then he did that picture, which actually too is a very, very good likeness of Cordelia. Quite amazingly amazingly accurate.
REBECCA: We might actually loop back to Jeffrey's process because we've talked a bit about these images that he constructed but, of course, Jeffrey also travelled out into the world around him and was just struck by the things he saw around him like magic. And I've actually got a quote from him that I think is really beautiful and sums this up but he said, "Suddenly I will see something that seizes me a shape, a combination of shapes, a play of light or shadows, and I send up a prayer because I know I've seen a picture". And so many of the paintings some of his best paintings have really quite surprising stories around him in terms of how he came across them in the real world. And this, I think, is a really example. I thought perhaps, Ermes, could you maybe talk to this painting a bit more? It is a great story.
ERMES: 'The oil drums' we were driving to Pisa Airport to go to London. I think it was the trip we then flew to Egypt or to Israel. I'm not sure. But, as we're driving along, there's a long area where you have factories and all of that sort of stuff and Jeffrey saw the heap of oil drums and said, "Oh, I'll have to come back" because it was on the highway and you couldn't stop. "I'll have to come back when we're back. I think I've got a picture there", which he did, and it was fantastic. Of course, he tried parking but then went to the actual factory and started sketching and he was ticked off by the watchman, who thought he was one of these ecological sort of people. (Laughter). And then when he said, "No, I want to do a painting", we thought he was mad. But when he had the painting done, I think the idea of putting the man playing the trumpet I think was absolutely incredible to do that because it just gives the painting an edge.
ERMES: What is why is the man rehearsing his trumpet with a background of tin oil drums?
REBECCA: Well, it's an interesting point, isn't it, that Jeffrey would come across scenes in the real world that most people would just overlook completely, but instead he sees them and sees the beauty in them and chooses to paint them. And the other work I'm thinking of in that sense is 'The plastic tube', which again is just sort of plastic tubes but they're quite beautiful and they're very airy. They're like a drawing in the sky. But again this comes from quite a mundane and entertaining place in a way. I will let you explain it.
ERMES: 'The plastic tubes' I mean, there was quite a bit of construction and renovation going on, and you'd have to go to these builders' yards where they had huge deposits of plastic tubes and everything, and trying to unwind these plastic tubes is always a big, big deal, and I think that's what inspired Jeffrey.
BRUCE: Of course, it's another one of his perspective paintings, which is so brilliant. Just the technical skill involved in creating that perspective is absolutely amazing.
REBECCA: But there's something then so airy and quite magical about it when, in fact, it's just an object from the hardware store. He imbued something that's really straightforward, effectively bought at Bunnings really, into something that is quite magical, moving in the air.
DEBORAH: I think that's right, and it's something that we thought about a lot with the show, this confluence of the mundane and the metaphysical, and you know, the way that that pipe also gives us the sense of infinity and it's something that you really feel again when you look at that extraordinary I think his last major painting, 'The labyrinth', where you have that sense of that maze without end, you know, that takes us somewhere and makes us think.
So I think one of the other things I was struck by and I should acknowledge that Bruce wrote a wonderful piece in the catalogue, and thank you for that and you did mention Jeffrey's interest in literature and he was somebody who read very widely and deeply. I think you mentioned Trollope, for example, and how Jeffrey had this great memory for literature and poetry.
BRUCE: I was always terribly jealous of that. I mean, my memory I guess I'm just not very smart. (Laughter). He read so much of TS Eliot.
ERMES: Oh, yes.
BRUCE: He could quote he could do it all off by heart. He knew the whole of 'Four Quartets'. It was just quite incredible. He was very widely read. He read a lot of biographies, didn't he?
ERMES: He loved biographies.
BRUCE: He loved biographies. I remember when he was very sick and he was very old and he had that Russian nurse there. Remember her.
BRUCE: And he was sitting up in bed reading this enormous biography of Catherine the Great, and I thought, "He's never going to get through that". It was really sad. It was sad. It really upset me. And then I looked across on the wall opposite him. He'd pinned up that wonderful painting by Piero della Francesca.
ERMES: 'The flagellation'.
BRUCE: Yes, it was oh it upsets me just to think about it now.
DEBORAH: Yes, and that extraordinary interest in Eliot that stayed with him from those very early years through to his later years, and you see it in those paintings. I mean, they were actually called 'The wasteland' or abandoned allotments, you know, 'Vacant allotment'. So it was a very direct connection and very interesting in the way that poetry is an evocative aspect that informs the work.
REBECCA: Yeah, the other great interest in Jeffrey's life was music, of course. We are actually nearing the end of our conversation, which it seems like we only started about five minutes ago, but I felt perhaps as a last question, perhaps we could talk a bit more about the importance of music to Jeffrey. He was a great fan of the composer Richard Wagner, of course as you are as well, Ermes. I'm not sure about you, Bruce. Perhaps you can tell us a bit more about that.
ERMES: He hates Wagner. He hates it.
BRUCE BERESFORD: I wouldn't go quite that far, but I didn't share Jeffrey's or Ermes' immense passion for Wagner. I was supposed to do a documentary about Wagner once and it never really came off. The librettos are ludicrous.
ERMES: No, they're not. They're not. They're universal. They're universal. Incredible sort of but I've just been to a lecture on Wagner this morning, and just everything the nuance of the leitmotifs, everything about Wagner is just extraordinary. Actually, he just completely revolutionised opera.
BRUCE: He did. Nevertheless
REBECCA: What do you think was the appeal for Jeffrey, though?
ERMES: You've got to imagine when I was there the first summer, we would have Rai 3, which was the ABC of Italy, would have direct broadcast of Bayreuth and we would have the evening where you would just play it in the loggia and then you would have an hour for your meal and then you'd play the rest. And, you know, of an evening in Tuscany, that was absolute magic, to hear the direct broadcast of it from Bayreuth.
BRUCE: Yes. Of course he liked he liked Mozart too.
ERMES: Yes. He liked Richard Strauss.
BRUCE: Yes, he did Richard Strauss. Well, I'm with him on that one.
ERMES: He didn't really he wasn't so keen on Rossini and a lot of the light Italian bel canto operas but we saw a lot of second rate productions, that sort of thing, whereas in Bayreuth you had the
BRUCE: Of course, opera only works when they're first rate productions, otherwise it collapses.
DEBORAH: You know all about that, Bruce. And interesting to also think about what Jeffrey was listening to in the studio. He did love listening to music while he painted, didn't he?
BRUCE: Yes, I remember that time I was in the studio and he was playing the music and he said, "Bruce, why aren't they playing more 'Delius'? I want more 'Delius'." He said, "Can you go and call the station and ask them for more 'Delius'?" and I said, "But, Jeffrey, apart from anything else, with my Italian, they'll never know what I'm talking about!". (Laughter). And I said, "Would these Italians ever have heard of 'Delius'?"
ERMES: Probably not. They played a lot of Respighi and all those the sort of '20s between the wars Italian Castelnuovo Tedesco and
BRUCE: He's a wonderful composer!
ERMES: Oh, really?
BRUCE: Yes, he is! And so is Respighi!
ERMES: Resphigi I agree.
DEBORAH: This is a very lively conversation about music.
REBECCA: It's very enlightening.
DEBORAH: And I'm sure Jeffrey wishes he was here joining in because he loved repartee and had such a great sense of humour and, as you were saying earlier, such a rich kind of array of interests from obviously his deep connection with art and art history, poetry, music, architecture and his love of architecture that started very early on and that you can see in the paintings.
But I think we are getting quite close to the end of this conversation, as Rebecca was saying, and we're now going to open up to some questions from our viewers who are watching this live. So we'll throw over some questions to you, if we may.
REBECCA: So the first question
BRUCE: People are watching us?
REBECCA: People are watching us! It's not just the four of us. (Laughs). So the first question is from Alex in Brisbane, and it's: "Jeffrey Smart is my favourite artist". Thank you, Alex. That's very nice. "I adore 'The oil drums'. Where was it painted?", and we sort of partially addressed this but maybe if you could just explain it a bit more. So where was 'The oil drums' painted?
ERMES: Well, it was painted in the studio.
REBECCA: In the studio at Posticcia Nuova.
ERMES: Yes. You know, Jeffrey went and did sketches. He didn't paint plein air. He didn't take the canvas there at the site. He would have done sketches and taken photographs, and then the whole thing would be done in the studio.
REBECCA: Great. So the next question is from Mem, and she said: "Can you talk a little bit about distance and space between objects in the paintings?". That's from Mem.
ERMES: Which painting, though? I mean, Jeffrey's always aware of the picture plane of the composition and what he's doing with the picture.
REBECCA: I guess it's quite interesting to think about how much he did compose his paintings and that, in fact, the space and the way everything was arranged
ERMES: Rigorously composed. Rigorously composed.
BRUCE: I think I learnt a lot about composing scenes in films from my knowledge of Jeffrey's paintings and of talking to Jeffrey and hearing him talk so much about composition. And I'm very meticulous in every film I've made even though it might not look like it, I'm very meticulous about the compositions of every single shot, and I think that really does come from Jeffrey.
DEBORAH: That's a really wonderful crossover between your disciplines and I do think that space is very important in Jeffrey's work and I think it's something that goes right back to that early training with Dorrit Black and understanding the golden mean and dynamic symmetry, but also I think one of the things that is so magical about Jeffrey's work is that space, that he allows the objects space, and that creates a kind of mystery that he doesn't overcrowd the paintings, and sometimes they are only like two or three elements that are working together that create this extraordinary power and poetry, I think.
BRUCE: He was also I mean, remember too his great passion for a lot of the French Impressionists. Léger. Well, certainly Cézanne.
ERMES: Cézanne, yes. But they're not Impressionists.
BRUCE: No, they're not.
DEBORAH: Post Impressionists.
BRUCE: They're French, though! (Laughter).
DEBORAH: So the next question from Susan in Canberra is: did Jeffrey met Alma Mahler? She pops up a few times, not only in 'Feeding the birds'.
ERMES: No. Meet Alma Mahler? She was dead. (Laughter).
BRUCE: No, she
ERMES: When did she die?
BRUCE: No, she didn't no, she was supposed to have had an affair with Errol Flynn when she was in her 60s in New York.
ERMES: Of course!
BRUCE: No, no, she didn't die until sometime in the '50s or '60s. She lived on forever.
ERMES: But there's a brilliant
BRUCE: I think Jeffrey managed to avoid her!
ERMES: There's a brilliant portrait of her in Colm Tóibín's book 'The Magician'.
BRUCE: Is there?
ERMES: Yes, on Thomas Mann. And he obviously Colm Tóibín researched did a lot of research on Alma Mahler and, of course, what she wrote in her diaries was completely different from what actually happened!
BRUCE: I made a film about Alma Mahler! 'Bride of the Wind'. I thought it was quite good, but my opinion was not shared generally! (Laughter).
ERMES: But Jeffrey loved the idea of her racing across France to escape the Gestapo, who were after her to nab the copyright of the Bruckner 4th Symphony that she had, and she needed to get that to America because that was going to be her bread and butter for the next 30 years.
BRUCE: She was a very enterprising woman.
ERMES: But what she doesn't say, which Colm Tóibín mentions, is that she was negotiating with Hitler about the price! (Laughter).
REBECCA: Now we've got another question from Roland, and he says and this is a question really for the both of you would you call his style 'Surreal', which is an interesting question.
ERMES: What do we mean by 'Surreal' because it's certainly not Surreal the way Salvador Dali is Surreal. I mean, if you look at de Chirico, there's Surreal elements where you put an object which can sort of look completely strange
BRUCE: Well, I think he saw Surrealism in everyday life.
ERMES: Yes, exactly.
BRUCE: Which was fascinating to me. The way he looked at things was I thought, "That's interesting, that juxtaposition of those things", but they're there.
REBECCA: I think it's interesting
ERMES: Can I just finish off because we went to the big Surrealist exhibition at The Guggenheim, where Jeffrey was in a wheelchair and crushing into people, et cetera, and coming down. And by the end of it, we'd had enough and we went into the permanent collection and there we saw Picasso and we saw the most magnificent Léger, and Jeffrey said, "This is so much better because it's about formal issues and formal qualities". I mean, it was wonderful to get away from people's bad dreams! (Laughter).
BRUCE: I can understand that.
ERMES: I mean, and to actually see constructed paintings that were about painting rather than the nightmare you had the night before.
REBECCA: It's interesting, returning back to what you were saying before, Bruce, about there is something surreal about his paintings but it's the way he's putting things together. And I think that is something it's a really good observation because so much of what he does is drawing out these things from the world around us and these objects but it's the way that they're placed and these kind of uncanny relationships that make us look and look again that kind of takes them into this dreamlike space. So, like you say, Ermes, they're not sort of from this nightmarish realm as per a Dali but they still take on this sort of strange unseemliness because they are from reality but they're not quite as we expect.
ERMES: Not quite where you would expect them.
DEBORAH: And I think what's interesting about it is that Jeffrey can and nor would we want him to ever be pinned down by a particular style. People question: is he a Realist, is he a Surrealist? I think it's the combination of elements but what he brought to it, and, you know, it's more probably a sense of the uncanny and the mysterious rather than that Breton kind of inspired Surrealism that you might have seen in that Surrealist show.
BRUCE: He certainly had an eye for the unusual. I remember asking him once about the painting with the men on stilts. I said, "How did you think of that?", and he said, "Well, I didn't really think of it; I saw it".
REBECCA: We've got another question there's quite a few questions actually from Pat this time, and this is a question about materiality, the materials that Jeffrey used, and he says: "His later paintings seemed to use more acrylic paint and often mixed with oils. What was it about acrylic or polymer paint that appealed to him?". That might be a question for you, Ermes.
ERMES: Well, the acrylic phase ended more or less when I turned up. Jeffrey would paint a base layer in acrylic, and, of course, you can only use oil over acrylic. You can't do the reverse. And then he just gave up on acrylics and just used pure oils. Much better because oil paint has much more much more depth to it than acrylic. Acrylic ends up looking dry.
BRUCE: I know he was very specific about where he got the paint from.
ERMES: Absolutely. We used to go into Florence. It was behind the Duomo where the wonderful art shop was which had powdered paints all in a row. It was fabulous. And then, of course, in the end we had to have them sent because you couldn't get a car anywhere near it.
BRUCE: Too many people.
ERMES: And they would send the material.
REBECCA: We've got time for one last question for both of you, and this time it's from Mary, and she was wondering if either of you or both of you had a favourite memory of Jeffrey.
DEBORAH: Big question.
REBECCA: It is a big question.
ERMES: Well, mine's rather mine's rather personal.
REBECCA: Bruce, did you have a favourite memory?
BRUCE: Well, I guess my favourite memory is probably a lot of memories of those wonderful nights, wonderful evenings in Arezzo where we were all gathered around these fabulous meals, often cooked by you, and the conversation was so exhilarating, often listening to Jeffrey's anecdotes, his views on art. I mean, it was never to be forgotten.
ERMES: Well, my memory one of the most beautiful was on a winter's day with the bright sun and incredible blue skies and we drove up to the cemetery where Jeffrey is buried and walked up the hill to Hawkwood's castle
BRUCE: I remember. I know the graveyard, yes.
ERMES: And just the light. It was just breathtaking. Everything was so perfect, looking at the distant mountains with snow on them.
BRUCE: Beautiful place.
DEBORAH: Well, thank you both so very much for sharing with us such a rich array of ideas, and it's such a beautiful note on which to end, thinking about Jeffrey and those wonderful memories. I really do appreciate your time, as Rebecca does, and we really enjoyed being in this conversation with you. So a very heartfelt thank you. And also to our live audience, thank you for participating tonight. Thank you for being with us. And, finally, our appreciation to Michael Maher of the American Friends of the National Gallery for his great support of the programs that we do and these livestream events. Once again, Ermes and Bruce, thank you so much. Thank you.
BRUCE: Thank you.
ERMES: Thank you.