Menzies Art Brands



Jeffrey Smart’s painting Holiday of 1971 shows the then fifty-year old artist at his artistic best. The painting’s composition is characteristically economical and nothing is added that might detract from its concise visual impact. The title of the work is both laconic and ironic in that it points to a painting that depicts a scene hardly worthy of its label. The painting is very significant as it is about as wry as Smart ever gets. Without malice or sneering superiority, it portrays the unfortunately unavoidable only choice that some people have to find respite in many over-industrialised cities – especially in contemporary Italy. This is not the landscape of Tuscany, the airy ambience of Palermo or the seascape
of Portofino; this is the outer suburban encrustation that surrounds many
Italian cities.

The painting’s only figure, a woman seated in the sun on a small boxed-in balcony, gives the painting an air of a sad prospect. The building in which she has taken refuge is typically austere and overly uniform, with jutting monochromatic Cuisenaire rod-like balconies that protrude from what are probably more like roosts than rooms. Such is the lot of some, Smart seems to say. The painting, sharp as a barb, is a magnificent vignette. 

Smart constantly searches for such images; in fact, any scenes, events or juxtapositions that might give an insight into selected aspects of contemporary urban life. His paintings are sometimes wry, as in the present painting, but never mocking or contemptuous and his eye is always compassionate. Consequently, his paintings are more like gentle observations, avuncular asides and visual commentaries rather than critical lessons or fulminating sermons. Smart is a very seasoned traveller, but he never does it to escape or rest like most people; he travels for art, beauty, music, others artists’ exhibitions and most often to search out artistic possibilities that may form the subject of his next canvas. In Smart’s paintings the ordinary, urban oddities, the overlooked and the everyday are aesthetically selected for impact and converted to become artistic elements in strikingly evocative canvasses. There are those who see his idyllic rural Tuscan surroundings as being at odds with the themes of his paintings. His answer is simple: ‘Sometimes I am asked if it doesn’t feel incongruous that I am painting autostrada and traffic signs while I am living in the beauty of the countryside... this environment is conducive for work and on my frequent forays to Arezzo and Florence I see a lot of that modern world which I like to paint.’1

Smart’s artistic approach is visitational. Smart’s paintings arise from travel and the viewer is drawn to them but never feels part of them. This is, in part, because they have no gestural flourishes, no expressionistic flare and no subjective outpouring. Smart’s paintings gain their power from careful composition and painstaking rendering, all in an attempt to give maximum visual credibility to the imagery. Holiday 1971 shows how effectively Smart controls the picture plane and its elements. The recession of cube-like balconies recede into space and are optically blocked by an adjoining apartment block, thus compressing the field of view and directing the viewers’ attention to the seated figure to the lower right of the canvas. Additionally, Smart’s sophisticated paintings always have a distinctive mood. They often present a world that is haunted rather than peopled and they always seem to be created by a displaced witness. Furthermore, there is, in Smart’s paintings, often a feeling of ‘belatedness’, in the sense used by Dr. Harold Bloom
the American literary critic and Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University, that lends to his works the character of coming late to the scene, of arriving just after things have occurred. Not surprisingly, these twin attributes, belatedness and dislocated witness, are crucially important components of the enigmatic elements that pervade so many of Smart’s paintings and in part account for their memorable and psychologically pregnant atmospheres. 

Many of Smart’s scenes are seen through a car window. Consequently, Smart’s paintings are dependent upon travel; one passes these exterior scenes sealed from them. Smart employs what might be called an observational aesthetic. Smart’s 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 qualities have led some commentators to discern a filmic quality in Smart’s paintings and to see parallels in some Italian films. Certainly, the film La Notte (The Night) of 1961 directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
centres upon an urban landscape of clashing juxtapositions, water towers and high-rise streetscapes to give voice to the bittersweet complexities of urban life. Furthermore, the early films of the German director Wim Wenders present many scenes through a car’s front window to focus and frame viewers’ attention and to experience the film subjectively, that is, as though the viewer was one of the film’s subjects. In Smart’s paintings, there is that same sense of seeing the world subjectively through his 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 vision and construct pictorial associations. Smart puts these aesthetic matters succinctly:

Sometimes I’ll 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: ecstasy or a moment or a feeling about something. Sometimes the feeling is not so much visual. Sometimes it’s a feeling about a certain place or area of Rome or Florence, or the country where there’s a garage. There’s a feeling there that I like.2

Jeffrey Smart’s oil painting Holiday of 1971 presents us with just such oddities. It shows a scene of a perplexing juxtaposition that generates tumbling associations. This is an oddly poetic painting with an almost astringent effect that displays the artist’s aesthetic philosophy precisely and concisely. 

Looked at in these ways, Smart’s paintings may be seen as aesthetic reflections upon glimpses of urban life caught in mental snapshots and expressed in analogical ideas. No other Australian artist can lay claim to such sentiments and just such procedures of the creative imagination. 


1. Jeffrey Smart in O’Grady, D., Sydney Morning Herald, 25 November, 1995 as cited in Capon, E.,
Jeffrey Smart Retrospective, Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1999, p. 43.

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


Pearce, B., Jeffrey Smart, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2005
Capon, E., Jeffrey Smart Retrospective, Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1999
McDonald, J., Jeffrey Smart: Paintings of the 70s and 80s, Sydney, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1990
Quartermaine, P., Jeffrey Smart, Melbourne, Gryphon Books, Melbourne, 1983
Smart, J., Not Quite Straight, Heinemann, Melbourne, 1996

Associate Professor Ken Wach
Dip. Art; T.T.T.C.; Fellowship RMIT; MA; PhD.
Principal Research Fellow, The University of Melbourne


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