A new exhibition celebrates the centenary of Jeffrey Smart, his legacy and the ideas that emerge from his work, write Deborah Hart and Rebecca Edwards.
Jeffrey Smart’s potent images of empty streets populated by solitary figures have become emblematic of 20th- and 21st-century urban experience — particularly in this pandemic era. The acclaimed Australian artist sought inspiration and beauty from the world around him, looking to the sites and objects of urban and industrial modernity such as water towers, apartment blocks, factories, modes of transport, railway sidings, highways and signage — all of which he rendered with a sense of theatre and an intimate understanding of geometry and composition. Now, 100 years since Smart’s birth, the National Gallery will hold a major exhibition to celebrate his centenary.
While broadly chronological, beginning with Smart’s artistic foundations in Adelaide, the exhibition is fundamentally thematic and delves into a rich array of ideas emerging from his work: the theatre of life and the uncanny, surveillance, the act of watching and being watched, geometry and composition, pattern making and architectural constructs, the road and directional motifs, art about art, as well as portraiture and friendships. The show will also reveal insights into Smart’s working methods and incorporate archival material to present the trajectory of his life from Adelaide to Sydney and to Italy, where he lived from 1964 until his death in 2013. Although he spent all these decades outside of Australia, Smart never liked to think of himself as an expatriate. Instead, he felt a deep connection with his country of birth and very much at home in his adopted country, resisting the idea of neat categorisations in terms of geographical boundaries or narrative.
Although Smart’s works suggest narratives, he was averse to telling stories about his art, preferring instead to emphasise the importance of geometry and composition. In 1969, he famously stated, “my only concern is putting the right shapes in the right colours in the right places. My main concern always is the geometry, the structure of the painting.” Given the persistence of enigmatic, figurative imagery in his art, this statement seems misleading. It remains, however, a stance he repeated often and certainly, an interest in compositional design and form in their most abstract sense runs parallel and in constant tension with the figurative aspect of his work. From a curatorial point of view, we have sought to explore the confluence between these two seemingly opposed ideas in both the exhibition and the publication.
Theatre of the real and the uncanny
In relation to figuration and subject matter, Smart’s art is more akin to poetry than prose. Indeed, poetry, especially by T.S. Eliot but also many others, was profoundly important to him. His painting The wasteland II, for example, drew directly from Eliot’s highly influential poem of the same name. His painting presents an abandoned bank building set within a desert landscape strewn with incongruous objects as though props on a stage. For Smart, the poem was a revelation and he had a profound and lifelong passion for Eliot’s writings, sharing an interest in bringing together aspects of daily life with the metaphysical.
Smart’s Self-portrait, Procida, presents a theatre for imagining. It reveals his awareness of the work of Giorgio de Chirico, who combined architectural and largely deserted spaces to create unsettling landscapes of mind. Smart did not paint many self-portraits and those he did were telling. In tandem with the strength of his compositions — focusing intently on the construction of his pictures — it was the crystallisation of specific imagery and a pervasive, often haunting stillness that characterises his best works. This small self-portrait invokes another key foundation stone of his work: meditations on the nature of time. It was inspired by a memory of the island of Procida off the coast of Naples, where he and his close friend Jacqueline Hick stayed for a short while prior to their return to Australia in 1951. In this, as in other works, Smart often sets the theatrical stage to create arenas in which human experience cannot be defined through easy platitudes or singular readings. Instead, the subjects of his art are suggestive realms in which characters and signposts within the paintings are jumping-off points for the viewer, who becomes an active player, bringing themself to the experience. This is part of the brilliance of some of Smart’s best works in which image and structure are distilled as tautly as a haiku, inviting the viewer into a dream.
Dreamlike sensibilities are seen in On the roof, Taylor Square. Here, the sunbathing woman feels physically very present while the tilt of her head and closed eyes suggest she is in her own dream world. In its palette and in her pose there are echoes of the sleeping figures in Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection fresco, albeit in a determinedly contemporary, secular setting. The striking presence of the naked figure, covered only by black drapery, is amplified by the palette of the yellow and pink architecture behind the rooftop, set against an uncharacteristically blue sky. Smart painted male figures in a similar direct pose, for instance in The listeners, undertaken in Rome. The man who turns his head towards the satellite appears to be listening intently. He lies in long grasses that rustle in the wind while the satellite picks up its own signals. New technologies of satellite and radio dishes and towers were integral to dramatic changes in communications in the 20th century, creating a global interconnectedness.
Abstracting from the real
The significance of compositional design was something Smart first learnt from Dorrit Black, who had spent time in London studying at the Grosvenor School and then in Paris with André Lhote and Albert Gleizes. When she arrived back in Adelaide after a stint in Sydney, where she had established the Modern Art Centre (1931–33), she made a considerable impact on the artistic milieu. Smart always acknowledged Black’s importance to him in the formative stages of his artistic life, opening up new ways of thinking about art, especially in relation to ‘making a picture’ — and the processes involved in constructing a composition. Black shared details of the golden mean, a mathematical ratio that defined the relationship between formal elements and provided a framework upon which artists could develop aesthetically pleasing, balanced compositions in which objects were placed at points most appealing to the eye. Through the golden mean, Smart was introduced to and presented with a practical way of conceiving the composition in terms of basic, abstract geometry and the mathematical structure can subsequently be seen in the compositions of many of the works he produced during his lifetime. Returning to On the roof, Taylor Square, for example, the composition is underpinned by a simple yet effective arrangement of golden rectangles that form the backdrop to the sunbathing woman, the black clothing draped between her legs, wryly positioned at the focal point dictated by the ratio.
As well as his understanding of the underpinning structure of the composition, in later years Smart began to play with the outwardly formal traits broadly associated with developments in pure abstraction — the bright, flat colour, sharp-edged geometric shapes and optical patterns seen in colour field and hard-edge painting of the 1960s onwards. This manifests particularly in his imagery of the road. Asphalt, road markings, billboards, signage and the bulky carriages of trucks with their graphic, two-dimensional surfaces offered Smart a subject existing in the external world that was already reduced to an abstract visual language resembling the bold, flattened geometries of pure abstraction. In Bus terminus, road markings strike up the composition in broad arcs, stripes and grids of crisp yellow and white. Although the tone of the road darkens slightly as it moves towards to the viewer, the lighting across the composition is predominantly even and smooth, and the overall effect is one of flatness and two-dimensionality. Large, formal blocks of colour are seen in Truck and trailer approaching a city, in which Smart overlapped the carriages of two trucks, one yellow and one red, and pushed them into the foreground to create two large fields that divided the composition in half. Later works such as Portrait of Clive James (1991–92) play with optical geometric patterns of a corrugated fence, pressed against the foreground in a singular graphic plane that dominates the composition.
Ultimately, however, it is impossible to avoid the references to reality in Smart’s compositions. His paintings are populated with portraits of friends, lovers and public figures, layered with references to literature, art and other artists, and underpinned by personal jokes and references that mean the viewer can never solely interpret his work as a formal, compositional exercise — despite his assertions otherwise. The yellow fence in Portrait of Clive James fills most of the composition like a hard-edge painting, yet James’s head remains visible at its top and the painting never becomes a complete abstraction. Figuration and form inevitably jostle with each other, a tension encouraged by the artist that is both puzzling and enigmatic but, more importantly, in the end, central to their ongoing allure.
In his last major painting, Labyrinth, Smart brings together many of the philosophical, literary and aesthetic threads that had run through his work since his early paintings undertaken in Adelaide in the 1940s. Labyrinth was inspired by a verdant hedged maze the artist saw on a book cover, transforming this image into a stone configuration that appears to extend into infinity. Here, the motif combines his ongoing interest in geometry and the philosophy of aeronautical engineer J.W. Dunne, who believed in predestination and the relevance of dreams. He also proposed that our experience of time as linear is an illusion and that past, present and future were continuous in a higher dimension of reality. In the centre of the labyrinth is a portrait of H.G. Wells, who was friends with Dunne and best remembered for his science-fiction novels including The time machine (1895). Although his work was derived from an image of a maze, Smart chose to title it Labyrinth. While a maze presents a challenge and is often used in science to study spatial awareness, a labyrinth has spiritual connotations. Perhaps, in the end, geometry has become the subject, embodying both a sure sense of construction and a sense of the metaphysical, opening up endless possibilities for imagining.
Jeffrey Smart opens at the National Gallery on 11 December 2021. Tickets are on sale now.
This article is from the June 2021 issue of Artonview