Jeffrey Smart’s friends made cameos in several of his paintings – sometimes anonymously, sometimes as a portrait. To celebrate his centenary exhibition, we hear from Smart’s famous sitters.
David Malouf on sitting for Jeffrey Smart:
“There’s always a kind of playfulness about the way Jeff sees you when he’s painting a portrait. … sitting for Jeff was remarkable because he liked to talk while he was working … and some of the stories were quite outrageous. So it was great fun, and we would just be in the studio alone and he worked for quite long hours and very painstakingly, both when he was doing the sketches and also when he was painting.”
Jeffrey Smart writing to David Malouf about the portrait in a letter dated 13 September 1980:
“Dear David, it’s midnight & I’ve come down to the studio to look again at your portrait. It is just floating on to the canvas. Apart from being a portrait, it is, I feel sure, the best picture I have ever painted. Perhaps it would be better not to have you pose again. Ermes says it looks more like you than any of the drawings … I’ll glaze it later … to give you that wonderful golden look you have.”
Clive James on sitting for Jeffrey Smart:
“When he started painting me, I thought it was going to be a big portrait of me because he did a very meticulous head study and he kept up a running commentary while he was painting me, mainly about my physical deficiencies – apparently my ears are asymmetrical and my eyes are unusually small. There was quite a lot of that. The results were staggering, it’s a wonderful head study, I’ve still got it. And I thought well the painting will be a big version of that. And then when I got to Sydney the following year the painting undoubtedly it was big, it was huge, it’s like a tennis court, but me, the picture of me is a very, very tiny thing. A little dot! I got used to that fairly quickly.”
Jeffrey Smart on how small he painted Clive James:
“He thinks, jokingly of course, that it was a serious effort to put him down, but how could you ever put Clive down, ever?”
I try to avoid having a person sitting in chair and staring at you — it's such a boring composition.
Margaret Olley on sitting for Jeffrey Smart:
“I am glad Jeffrey put me in the Louvre for I am much more at home in the Louvre than on one of [his] freeways.”
Jeffrey Smart on Margaret Olley in the Louvre Museum:
"I was going to have figures in blue jeans, but then I thought it would be better to have a static figure, then I thought it might as well be a portrait, and then I thought of Margaret … but I don't believe in the idea of the artist being psychologically penetrating. Whoever gave artists the perception to know the innate, secret things of a person's heart?"
Germaine Greer on Jeffrey Smart:
“The world which Jeffrey Smart has created out of familiar elements belongs to us. We can understand its extremely complex language. It is not a world meant to be savoured by strollers or applauded by passengers in hansom cabs; it is constructed on our own speed and scale, we read its arcane symbols effortlessly and just as stiffly translate them into sensation.”
Jeffrey Smart on his Portrait of Germaine Greer:
(which began when Smart saw a section of a wall at a football ground in Melbourne):
“There were doors of two different colours, and a lovely bit of graffiti, a spray-canned letter R. I thought, that's going to be useful one day, and made a sketch. It evolved into a portrait of Germaine sitting on a chair in front of that wall. I put her in a long skirt because I wanted more colour in the composition. My frequent house guest, our brilliant filmmaker Bruce Beresford … says people think the R next to Germaine stands for ratbag - but it isn't true. Germaine used to be a Tuscany neighbour, but she sold up and rarely comes to Italy nowadays, sadly. Ermes [de Zan] had lunch with her in England this year; they went to the Chelsea Flower Show together.”
Ermes de Zan on sitting for his partner, Jeffrey Smart:
“The early portrait Jeffrey painted of me [North Sydney] was constructed. He had done the sketches in Sydney. He got me into the studio when we got back to Posticcia [Nuova]. He’d worked out the painting and in a sense he just needed a figure in that position. For Study for 'Portrait of David Malouf' [Ermes posed for this version], I was really just like a mannequin. The last one, The two-up game (Portrait of Ermes), is the only time he really painted me as a portrait. I think he’d got the composition going and he wanted the figure staring out into the audience. So then he said, ‘I’ll put you in’. In the war, they would have two-up games. I think he liked the idea of a composition of figures in that background, against the containers, against the trucks. I love it.”
“I always thought that painting was such a small thing, and it was all we could do to paint a picture. How does that compare to Beetovens’ 9th symphony?
T.S. Eliot wrote: Words move, music moves, but that which is only living can only die. Words after speech, reach Into the silence…., as a Chinese jar still, Moves perpetually in its stillness.
And I thought: there we have it, he’s saying what art can do. I’m convinced that Eliot must have known a lot about painting. If a good painting comes off it has a stillness, it has a perfection, and that’s as great as anything I think that a musician or a poet can do.”