Menzies Art Brands



Jeffery Smart is an artist who is acutely aware of the visual curiosities and quirky juxtapositions that urban life presents.  His is an avid traveller, but never a tourist. His eye searches for insights that might propel his artistic imagination.  In his paintings the taken for granted, the banal, the commonplace and the ordinary are transformed and used as compositional devices that are carefully selected and arranged to form strikingly evocative artistic creations. 


Many of Smarts images are presented as though glimpsed through a car window it could be called a visitational or observational aesthetic.  Smarts paintings are dependent upon travel and trawling the urban landscape; one passes by these exterior scenes sealed from them and one never feels part of them.  As a consequence, Smarts briefly perceived glimpses give his paintings a temporary ambience as though the scene is captured in the blink of an eye while being isolated and removed from it.  These lend a certain cinematic quality to Smarts paintings.  There is no doubt that Smarts paintings are composed as carefully as any movie shoot and it is possible to see them as images from the one long film spooling off in his artistic mind.  It is also possible to see imagistic parallels in the films of the Italian Post-War Neo-Realist films of Vittorio de Sica (1902-1974), Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007) and Federico Fellini (1920-1993), where beauty and meaning are also sought within the constructed confines of harsh metropolitan realities.  In particular, Antonionis film La Notte (The Night) of 1960 focuses upon towering skyscrapers, distressed brick walls, crowds, chain mail fences, factory chimneys, shadows and even the clinking of a clasp upon a flagpole - all conjure up a world that is abrasive and abject. In a similar manner, Smarts paintings present us with pictorial images of a degraded urban landscape: signs, roads, expressways, shipping containers, factories, brick walls, water towers, car parks and empty playgrounds - are all treated as iconographical pointers to what he calls a new violent environment. By violent, Smart means urban and metropolitan inhospitable environments that are far from the unhurried and relaxed comforts of small villages, farms, vineyards and pastoral vistas. It is important to note that Smart creates without scorn, ridicule or condescension. Smarts artistic depictions are uningratiating, distant, wistful, melancholic and thought provoking, but they are never callous or scornful his eye is precise yet compassionate. Smarts compositions are always visually arresting and mysterious in their ambiences and they are driven by an inner love of ambiguity and a desire to capture aesthetic stillness. The cinematic allusion may be taken a little further. The early films of the German director Wim Wenders (1945-) present many scenes through a cars front window to focus and frame viewers attention and to experience the film scenes subjectively, that is, like the films subjects. In Smarts paintings there is that same sense of seeing the world subjectively through Smarts eyes. Smart is not simply an impassive observer of urban realities; he is an active and avid collector and a manipulator of carefully selected visual details that channel ones vision and construct pictorial associations in the viewers mind. De Sica, Antonioni, Fellini and Wenders would all recognise Smarts aims and distinguish the poetry behind his urban-based visuality.1 Smart puts these matters succinctly:

Sometimes Ill drive around for months. Despair: nothing, nothing. Then suddenly I will see something that seizes me. A shape, a combination of shapes, a play of light or shadows, and I send up a prayer because I now have the germ of a picture. I have to stop and record that inspirational flash immediately, or I might lose it. I make rapid sketches, take photographs, note the time of day in case I want to return. To recrystallise a moment of ecstasy or a moment or a feeling about something. Sometimes the feeling is not so much visual. Sometimes its a feeling about a certain place or area of Rome or Florence, or the country where theres a garage. Theres a feeling there that I like.2

Jeffrey Smarts painting Richmond Park II of 1997-99 presents a highly sophisticated visual arrangement of planes and pictorial elements. The whole proportions of the composition of the painting are based upon the famous Golden Rectangle or Golden Ratio, known to the Pre-Socratic Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras (560-480 BC) but first published in the book Divina Proportione (Divine Proportions) in 1509 by Fra Luca Bartolomeo de Pacioli (1444-1514), who was Leonardo da Vincis mathematics teacher. A Golden Rectangle is formed by drawing a square, marking a midpoint on one of its sides and using it to describe an arc with the radius of the opposite corner.  This arc is then used to extend an edge of the square to form a rectangle. The resultant rectangle has always been considered to have pleasing proportions and is famously used in the faade of the Parthenon in Athens, the United Nations building in New York, designed by the famous Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012) and the Villa Stein in Garches in Paris designed by the renowned French architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965). Smart first became aware of this pictorial device and the importance of constructing carefully considered compositions when he was still a teenager.  This occurred in 1939 when he met the Adelaide artist Dorrit Black (1891-1951) at her studio in Magill, a suburb of Adelaide. Black was a very talented, and still very under-appreciated, artist who painted in an Australianised form of Cubism, which she had developed from studies in London and Paris and the ideas of the French artists Andr Lhote (1885-1962) and Albert Gleizes (1881-1853), who with Jean Metzinger wrote Cubism in 1912, the first book on the movement. Smarts meeting with Black was eventful and the memory of it stayed with him, even fifty-eight years later:

While I was at Art School, a group of us were invited to Dorrit Blacks studio. We had met the artist, and we all liked her immediately. It was wonderful to see her studio, built mainly as that, but also used as a dwelling. She sat us down and then generously gave us all her notes, details of dynamic symmetry, which she had learnt from Lhote and Gleizes in Paris. Cubism became immediately acceptable to us, and it was marvellous to go to an artists studio built for that purpose. Dorrit taught us above all to make pictures, to examine the bare bones of composition. The design, the composition was all-important.  The word that impressed was when you make a picture.3

Blacks emphasis upon the making of a picture highlighted for Smart that a painting is a human creation brought into existence through visual methods, pictorial analysis and mental discipline - it is not, especially after the invention of photography in 1839, the simple reproduction of a scene. In this sense painting is, above all else, a visual construction and constructions have rules, geometries and principles. To an artist such as Smart, painting is a highly sophisticated process of arrangements of forms through the use of choices and aesthetic deliberations. In the same line of thought music can be said to be primarily a matter of arrangements of notes that are constructed according to certain choices and deliberations. Smarts paintings aim to have what the famous Sydney sculptor Robert Klippel (1920-2001) has called visual weight and a geometric gravity, together with a sense of timelessness. One may see all of these pictorial attributes in Smarts highly accomplished painting Richmond Park II of 1997-99.  The painting is made up of a very restricted palette of colours with no traces of individualistic brushstrokes and no painterly flourishes. In this, he is like his much admired early Renaissance artists, such as Piero della Francesca (1420-1492, Italian) and Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494, Italian), whose techniques and geometric compositions he always held in awe. So restricted is Smarts palette that his sophisticated and restrained painting Richmond Park II could almost be seen as a study in just two colours blue and yellow, complementary colours that are exact opposites on the colour wheel and thus give this painting a strong and almost pulsating vibrancy.

Smarts painting Richmond Park II shows a brick wall that has been painted over with blue paint. A diagonal shadow falls across the wall giving Smart the opportunity to introduce a deeper tone of demarcation and different tones in the mortar lines of the bricks. This area is very carefully painted and when one notices the mortar lines one senses how much Smart has put into this orchestration of colours and tones. There is something oddly charming and whimsical about the way that Smart has painted the chip in the wall in the upper centre left of the painting and revealed the brick beneath the paint the physical materiality of the brick seems to assert itself against the mantle of pigment. The wall bears portions of the letters of a painted advertisement that emphasise the frontality of the picture plane. Keeping the principle of the Golden Rectangle in mind, one notices that the section of wall is shown as a square. If one selects the mid point of the lower section of this wall and imagines placing a compass point at it and describing an arc from the uppermost left point of the wall, the line so described would come to the bottom left corner of the canvas thus forming the Golden Rectangle. Adjacent to the wall is a field of dry grass painted in a range of yellows with a male figure leaning back seated on the ground wearing a white singlet and blue jeans, looking back into the picture plain towards a series of apartment blocks in the distance under a sullen sky.

Smarts painting Richmond Park II builds on and refines the characteristics of two earlier important paintings: his painting The Listeners of 1965 in the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery and his End of the Autostrada of 1968-69 in a private collection.  Smarts painting The Listeners shows a shirtless and shoeless male lying in an expanse of yellow grass looking back over his right shoulder at a large signal receiver on the top of a knoll - one type of listener, the human, listens to another type of listener, the mechanical. As in Richmond Park II the palette in the painting is restricted, although not quite as restricted as the later work although both works are enlivened by the preponderant use of blue and yellow. In Smarts painting End of the Autostrada we see a similar juxtaposition of the human and non-human. The paintings right side shows a large sign with a strong red diagonal band whose direction is carried down into the side of the road. The line is broken by a female figure peering out of the picture plane, in reality this figure is Smarts friend Nik Arrighi, who had an Australia mother, was educated in Australia and who later became Princess Borghese. Once again the colours blue and yellow predominate and the odd clash between the human and non-human adds a wistful atmosphere. 

Jeffrey Smart is an acknowledged master at capturing a particularly poignant and poetically nuanced artistic glimpse of the urban environment and his mature painting Richmond Park II, created when he was seventy-eight years of age, is a particularly fine example of the artist at his best. Smarts thoughtfully engendered and painstakingly rendered paintings are inimitable and no other artist has so evocatively addressed the bleak realities of the urban environment and presented such poetic, compassionate and humanistic interpretations of it. 



1. These points are taken up more fully in John McDonalds scholarly study.  See: McDonald, J., Jeffrey Smart: Paintings of the 70s and 80s, Sydney, Craftsman House, 1990, pp.28-29

2. Smart in Pearce, B., Jeffrey Smart, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2005, p.8

3 Capon, E., Jeffrey Smart Retrospective, Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1999, p.66



Pearce, B., Jeffrey Smart, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2005

Capon, E., Jeffrey Smart Retrospective, Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1999

McDonald, J., Jeffrey Smart: Paintings of the 70s and 80s, Sydney, Craftsman House, 1990.

Quartermaine, P., Jeffrey Smart, Melbourne, Gryphon Books, 1983.

Smart, J., Not Quite Straight, Heinemann, Melbourne, 1996


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


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