Here and there – Jeffrey Smart

Jeffrey Smart has something in common with Louis Armstrong.  He has his very own style and it is instantly recognisable.  Not many artists achieve that distinction.  But Smart is different to Nolan, Boyd, and Williams.  They taught us how to see and come to terms with the bush.  Smart taught us how to see and come to terms with the city.  In something of a manifesto, he said in 1968:

I find myself moved by man in his new violent environment.  I want to paint this explicitly and beautifully.

Some styles become outmoded for the artist’s message.  (If he has a message.)  But how would Bonnard paint a Hilton Hotel bathroom?  How wrong a jet plane or a modern motor car looks painted impressionistically!

A man is logical on horse-back: but in a satellite, surreal.  Only very recently have artists again started to comment on their real surroundings……

Security?  The bomb?  How much more insecure Fra Angelico must have felt riding to Orvieto with the threat of outlaws, robbers, and the plague.

Smart was born into a comfortable part of Adelaide in 1921.  He was obsessed with drawing as a child and the technique that he acquired would always be central to his painting.  While serving in a number of jobs, including the part of Phidias on The Argonauts on the ABC, he acquired a full education in art, most noticeably from an Adelaide lady called Dorrit Black.

She began with the geometric method for establishing the Golden Mean….This was a positive eye opener, and she linked it with compositions by Poussin, Tintoretto, Veronese, da Vinci and so on.  And it all related so clearly to Braque, Léger, and above all to Cézanne.

We see immediately how important this teaching was to the structures in Smart’s mature paintings.  He was very taken with the light and sense of place in Piero della Francesca, but Cézanne would remain his champion.

Like many Australian artists back then, he really got going in trips to Europe.  He studied with Léger for a while in Paris, and his early work shows some influence of de Chirico.  Smart said of him: ‘There is an element of the naïve in him, his perspective distorted without a care in the world while Cézanne agonized over the same thing.’  Smart would later say that his later paintings are better than his earlier ones partly because until he was forty-one he was working at other things to earn a living.  Someone said that post-modernism was like playing tennis with the net down.  That could never be said about Jeffrey Smart.  He had a life-long commitment to the high technique derived from the masters over the ages.

Peter Quartemaine says:

When a painting is ‘right’ it has for Smart a stillness, that quality he so admires in artists as diverse as Balthus, Poussin, Mondrian, Braque and Ben Nicholson.  He himself turns to T S Eliot for the best expression of what this stillness means in the work of art, a passage from Burnt Norton which he feels hints at the greater accessibility of the visual arts as vehicles of meditation compared with music or literature.  ‘At least, we do abolish time.’

…….Only by the form, the pattern

Can words or music reach

The stillness, as a Chinese jar still

Moves perpetually in its stillness.

Smart recalls in this connection reading a critical account of a Cézanne landscape as ‘nature in arrested movement’, where the critic assumed that the stillness came from the peacefulness of the original scene.  He insists that in Cézanne, as with Eliot’s Chinese jar or a perfect composition such as Guernica, the stillness comes from ‘the perfection of the design alone.’…..Eliot’s mature work, especially Four Quartets which has influenced the artist profoundly, is an expression of hard-won faith in the world and in the value of artistic endeavour.

Smart would later recall that Dorrit Black spoke of ‘making a picture’ rather than ‘painting a picture.’  Léger suited his preoccupation with geometric shapes.  ‘I paint buildings a lot because they are rigid shapes…they go straight into the picture plane – they make a space, a box, where you want it.’  He said that Piero della Francesca and Cézanne had taught him how to compose.  He was engrossed by The Flagellation and the Gilles of Watteau (which is referred to in his painting Dampier III).  He surrounded himself with reminders.  One said that ‘an artist must himself be moved if he is to move others.’

Germaine Greer said:

Many observers, hypnotised perhaps by the occasional human figures isolated in a man-made environment in Jeffrey Smart’s work, have been struck by its mystery and ambiguity…..There are few artists who can provide the shock of recognition and they are all great.

The rest, as someone said, belongs to the madness that is art.

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