In 2005, journalist MICHAEL MAHER travelled to Italy to interview JEFFREY SMART at his 18th-century farmhouse, Posticcia Nuova, in Arezzo in the Tuscan countryside.
In celebration of the centenary of Jeffrey Smart’s birth and the upcoming exhibition at the National Gallery, here is an edited transcript of their conversation, which was broadcast for the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent expat series Another Sun, accompanied by the last photoshoot with the artist, in 2011. Photographs by Robert Palmer.
Getting to know Jeffrey Smart during the course of making a documentary on him was a professional and personal treat.
He was 84 when 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 conversation.
Dining with Jeffrey and his partner, Ermes De Zan, in the loggia at Posticcia Nuova was the equivalent of what the Round Table at New York’s Algonquin Hotel must have been like in the 1920s.
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 T.S. Eliot poem or mispronounced ‘Bayreuth’, home of the German festival which celebrates the hosts’ beloved Wagner.
I was guilty on both counts but was quickly forgiven and spent many captivating hours filming Smart at the easel in his studio, sketching from his car on a Tuscan back road and playing piano in the great room of his farmhouse.
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.
JEFFREY SMART (JS): I looked at about 30 farmhouses and then found this one. At the time, I only had enough money for the deposit, but then I had a show in London and the money from the exhibition just paid for it. So when
I moved in here, I literally had no money at all for food, really. It was a pretty thin existence to start with.
Why do we change to lands warmed by another sun? Well, I don’t know. Why did Henry James leave America and go and work in England? Why did Picasso leave Spain and go and work in France? Why did Shakespeare go down from Stratford and move to London? Hemingway moved to Europe for a long time. I think a lot of artists moved a great deal. I think I left because I wanted to see the old masters in situ. I couldn’t go on feeding on reproductions. I wanted to see the pictures.
I don’t agree with the word ‘expatriate’. I think it’s a horrible word. Edna Everage calls an expatriate a traitor. That’s the equivalent in her dictionary, traitor. Nothing of the sort. Absolute nonsense. We should be able to live where we want to live. I much prefer living here in Tuscany than living in Australia. Mind you, my case is a little different. Because I came from Adelaide, which was no laughing matter, I tell you. It was not funny.
Jeffrey and Michael drive to an industrial-looking area of Arezzo, where the artist explains what inspires him from the local landscape.
JS: I just adore it here. I liked everything Italian. I like the offhand way of them. I like the language, and I love spaghetti, and I love the Italian painting and I like the Italian way of life.
I like the more geometric sort of forms. I’m no good with misty lakes and gum trees dissolving into hazy smoke and all that. It doesn’t get me. This is light industry. This is a happy hunting ground for me down here, and then I’ve got another one on the outskirts of Arezzo. So I’m well placed, really, for subject matter.
MICHAEL MAHER (MM): What are you looking for in particular?
JS: Nothing this morning. I don’t look for anything. It’s a bit like fishing. If you try too hard, you don’t see anything. It’s quite good there [he points to the gated entrance of a factory]. That entrance and the curved thing.
MM: And the boom gates with the red markings on them.
MM: The numbers over there in the circles.
JS: I’m helping you to see.
MM: What am I meant to be seeing?
JS: I don’t know. The new world.
MM: A lot of people have said, and you’ve heard it said many times about your work, that it is apocalyptic. That there’s something alienating.
JS: Oh, I don’t see that. Apocalyptic? Threatening.
MM: The dark skies…
JS: Oh, the dark sky, a big storm coming, bad times around the corner. Oh, I don’t see that. I just do black skies because…Gauguin said, “Good pictures are usually dark.” You’ll find it very hard to find bright blue skies in the great artists. Have a look.
Back at the farmhouse, Michael and Jeffrey are joined by the artist’s partner, Ermes De Zan, and their pugs.
MM: You’ve lived here for a number of decades with your partner, Ermes De Zan.
MM: You’ve described these years as the happiest in your life.
JS: The best, yes. I had a stroke of luck there, meeting Ermes. That was great…Mind you, I’d had a bad run before that. I’ve got a very bad track record with friends in the past…Nothing lasting more than about eight or nine years.
MM: What about being accepted here in Italy as a gay man and a gay couple? This is a very conservative nation.
JS: But that doesn’t exist here. There’s no gay people here at all. They don’t exist. They’re not recognised and that there are none. It’s quite an easy way out of it, isn’t it?
JS: No, it doesn’t exist.
MM: After 40 years in Italy, do you regard yourself as an Italian?
JS: No, I’m not an Italian. I’m an Australian. I’m an Australian who lives in Italy, but I never feel anything but Australian. How could I? Of course not.
MM: You’ve been away for a long time.
JS: Yes, but I intend to remain here and be buried here, I suppose. It depends where I am when I die. I don’t know that one.
— Jeffrey Smart was born in Adelaide on 26 July 1921 and passed away in Arezzo on 20 June 2013, aged 91.
The exhibition Jeffrey Smart opens on October 1 2021. Exclusive Members preview tickets available from Monday 12 July, general admission on sale 26 July.
Jeffrey Smart is supported by Major Patrons the Margaret Olley Art Trust, Philip Bacon AM, and Exhibition Patrons Penelope Seidler AM, Wayne Kratzmann, and Colin and Barbara Hindmarsh.