Menzies Art Brands

41. JEFFREY SMART Campbell Street 1963


Smarts was an observational aesthetic. He presented freeze frame mental snapshots captured while scanning the urban environment. These images, unusual events and odd placements were then carefully arranged into compositions in his studio. Smarts compositions are always arresting and mysterious and they are driven by an inner love of ambiguity and a desire to capture aesthetic stillness.

Jeffrey Smart was only eighteen when his artistic talent was recognised in 1939, when he was invited to participate in Adelaides first exhibition of modern art. The group show, organised by Mary P. Harris (1891-1978) was called The Testament of Beauty and included the work of much older local artists such as David Dallwitz (1914-2003), Ivor Francis (1906-1993), Jacqueline Hick (1919-2004) and Douglas Roberts (1919-1976), amongst others. Five years later in 1944, Smart held his first solo exhibition at Kozminskys at its former location in Little Collins Street in Melbourne. Robert Menzies, later to become Australias longest serving Prime Minister, opened the exhibition and Clive Turnbull, the art critic for Melbournes Herald newspaper wrote a very favourable review. Smarts direction was set. He travelled to Paris in 1950 and studied at the Grand Chaumire School, one of the best art schools in Europe artists such as Alexander Calder (1888-1976), Alberto Giacometti (19011966), Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) and Isamu Noguchi (19041988) had passed through its doors. He also attended the Acadmie Montmartre, where for a time he worked under Fernand Lger (1881-1955).

Smart held approximately 55 solo exhibitions and his works have been included in many group exhibitions. He wrote a number of books and is cited in a wealth of texts, alongside journals, newspapers, interviews and films, both nationally and internationally. Furthermore, Smarts work is represented in every State Gallery in Australia as well as the National Gallery of Australia and numerous national and international private and University collections.
In 1999, The Art Gallery of New South Wales mounted a large and highly successful retrospective exhibition of Smarts paintings, which travelled to the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide, the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane and the Museum of Modern Art at Heide in Melbourne. Additionally, the Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art in Adelaide hosted an exhibition, Master of Stillness: Jeffrey Smart paintings 19402011, which toured to the TarraWarra Museum of Art in Victoria in late December 2012.

Smarts oil painting Campbell Street of 1963 is an early work completed twelve months before his famous painting The Cahill Expressway in the National Gallery of Victoria. This latter painting, a favourite with many, shows the sweeping curve of a freeway and off ramp. Steeply raked shadows dramatise the outdoor scene and the middle ground figure of a portly one-armed man stares out of the picture plane, with his left coat sleeve tucked into his pocket. The scene is keenly observed and is both unsettling and eerie. The apartment buildings in the upper left of the painting seem deserted, the sky is broody and the upper right of the work shows the repositioned Bertram McKennal (18631931) monument to Shakespeare. An enigmatic quality pervades the atmosphere of this famous painting and intimations of the renowned Italian Pittura Metafisica (Metaphysical Painting) artist Giorgio de Chirico (18881978) flood the work.

Smarts observational aesthetic also pervades his painting Cooper Park of 1962. In this painting we are presented with the figure of a young man, naked to the waist, sitting on a grass knoll with his legs splayed out enjoying time in the sun. The figures left leg, draped with an open newspaper, seems alarmingly shorter than the right and the painting has an arid ambience that seems to radiate oppressive heat. Behind the figure awkward wooden railings hem in the space and the strangeness of the place is magnified by a series of apartment buildings and a chimney in the background to the right. Oddly no trees exist in this bleak park and a horizon line does not cut the cloudless deep blue sky. The painting is almost confrontational in its visual insistence. Both of these paintings presage the visual characteristics, the pictorial stillness and the observational aesthetic of Smarts later mature works completed in Italy. Smarts painting Campbell Street 1963 is in good company as it too shares these artistic attributes.

Smarts oil on canvas painting Campbell Street of 1963 is set in central Sydney near Belmore Park. The right of the canvas shows an apartment block and two tenement houses in the background and the paintings mid-ground is punctuated by a street sign atop a blue and white candy-striped pole. The foreground shows a bare-footed young girl in a red dress standing on a footpath against a mural or advertisement-covered wall. The left side of the wall is partially covered by a shadow from an adjoining building that forces the viewers attention to the central area of the canvas. This section, lit as though by a spotlight, is clearly the area that Smart wants to claim attention. The first thing to note is the disparity of the atmosphere of the mural and that of the street scene. The mural shows an open country scene, the streets display a closed urban scene. The sky in the mural is bluer and lighter than its adjoining patch of sky, which is dull and hazy. The mural shows a Range Rover, redolent of country driving and picnics, while the scene shows an empty streetscape. The mural promises escape, the street scene promises confinement. The point is clear. Smart wants the viewer to note the juxtaposition of the mural and the street scene, the actual and the representational, the real and the ideal. In making this juxtaposition Smart alerts us to the challenges
of urban inhospitality. The positioning of the young girl shows her preference. Clearly, so does Smart. The remarkable wistfulness of this painting is driven by equally remarkable metaphysical musings.

Like most serious artists Smart was most reluctant to discuss or explain his paintings. However, five years after Smarts Campbell Street was completed he was published in the prestigious Swiss journal Art International, giving a rare glimpse into the enigmatic and varied content of his metaphysical and aesthetic ruminations:

Some styles have become outmoded for the artists message (if he has a message). But how would Bonnard paint a Hilton Hotel bathroom? How wrong a jet-plane or a modern car looks painted impressionistically! A man is logical on horseback; but in a satellite, surreal. Only very recently have artists again started to comment on their real surroundings. New art movements emerge ever faster. Now for the first time since 1874 (First Impressionist Exhibition) a painter may employ any style, and not be labelled reactionary. We accept changes and miraculous discoveries without wonder as Vermeer handled a white jug; but man has changed little in thousands of years in his need for art, even for mysticism. He still strives for the same ends in different ways. Security? The Bomb? How much more insecure Fra Angelico must have felt riding to Orvieto with the threat of outlaws, robbers and the plague.1

These limpid words and thought-provoking sentiments reveal a poetic and thoughtful mind. Looked at in these ways, Smarts paintings may be seen as aesthetic reflections upon glimpses of urban life caught in mental snapshots and expressed in analogical ideas.

1. Smart, Jeffrey, Art International, vol.X11/5, Zurich, May 1968. Cited in: McDonald, J., Jeffrey Smart: Paintings of the 70s and 80s, Sydney, Craftsman House, 1990, p.50 and Pearce, B., Jeffrey Smart, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2005, p.153

Associate Professor Ken Wach
Dip. Art; T.T.T.C.; Fellowship RMIT; MA; PhD.
Former Principal Research Fellow and Head,
School of Creative Arts
The University of Melbourne

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