Menzies Art Brands

JEFFREY SMART Study for Waiting for the Train


Jeffrey Smart’s Study for Waiting for the Train of 1969-70 is one of his most visually balanced and acutely rendered urban scenes.

We all see such 'wish I had my camera' scenes but do nothing with them. We recognise and respond to them in Smart’s paintings because they resonate with something that we have seen and, so often, something we have felt. Smart both notices and does something with them before relaying the reconfigured experience to the viewer. It’s essentially an act of renewal - one that reinvigorates the ordinary.

The source of Smart’s painting is a paused eye blink, where objects and scenes are grasped in an instant – a still caught in a moving reel of filmic images. Smart relishes caught stillness and he revels in its essential grasped in passing mode of seeing. This mode affords him an emotionless distance that accentuates the pictorial tableau. Study for Waiting for the Train seems to have arisen from a just such a glanced moment of acute observation. One recognises the scene, since it is so common, and the painting is a tribute to Smart’s ability to distil and concentrate the aesthetic effects of such seemingly banal urban events. The uncanny ambience of Smart’s Study for Waiting for the Train gives a hint of the underlying source of the enigmatic feeling that pervades this work: that of Giorgio De Chirico (1888-1978), the much admired Italian proto-Surrealist artist whose carefully composed desolated piazzas and long lugubrious shadows are distantly echoed here.

Given all this, it is understandable that Smart was never a spontaneous and unrestrained artist. Certainly, his mental snapshots came spontaneously or unexpectedly, but the actual rendering and resolution of these vignettes into pictorial form was always painstaking and meticulous. Smart explains it himself in the following words:

I usually work from drawings.
Then I take photographs.
Then I fiddle around with them, do little sketches, little ideas, little trials.
And sometimes they come off … It’s terribly slow.
And I destroy a lot. 1

Even this simple statement gives some indication of just how painstaking Smart was. There are no dashed off works of bravura or painterly happenstance. Smart was a studious artist whose compositions are as carefully constructed as they are rendered. His words reveal how closely he studied his subjects and how his compositions were carefully formulated. They were often gridded out and the images were then recreated on canvas with many subtle changes being made to the placement and scale of the forms and elements in the final painting.

His Study for Waiting for the Train is one of the most finely composed examples of his characteristic aesthetic deliberations. For example, the upper line of the railway platform in the painting butts up against the screened panel to the right of the picture plane to form a set square-like partial frame that contains the silhouetted figures. So much so, that a line taken from the top of the screen delineates a rectangle that contains the eleven bodies in a frieze-like panel. The screen’s lattice shapes are almost wittily repeated in the upper left in the shape of the railway sign in a way that adds a perfectly compatible counterbalance to the picture plane. Looked at in these ways, one can see that Smart has constructed the entire composition almost as carefully as Piet Mondrian did in his famously elegant abstractions.

Smart’s Study for Waiting for the Train of 1969 is both confronting in its everyday realism and strangely comforting in its recognition of familiar urban realities – the links stop one short. When one recognises the ubiquitous banality of Smart’s urban realities one is brought to admire and more fully appreciate the aesthetic purpose of his characteristically uncluttered and carefully composed 'silent' paintings.

1. Jeffery Smart out-take transcript from the film Smart’s Labyrinth, Don Featherstone Productions. Appeared on ABC Television 10 May 1995 and Channel Ovation/
Optus Vision May 1998. Cited in Pearce, B., Jeffery Smart, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2005, p.18

Capon, E., Jeffery Smart Retrospective, Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1999
Gleeson, J., Masterpieces of Australian Painting, Lansdowne Press, Melbourne, 1969
Hughes, R., The Art of Australia, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1970
McDonald, J., Jeffrey Smart: Paintings of the 70s and 80s, Craftsman House,
Sydney, 1990
Pearce, B., Jeffery Smart, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2005
Quartermaine, P., Jeffrey Smart, Gryphon Books, Melbourne, 1983
Thomas, L., 200 Years of Australian Painting, Bay Books, Sydney, 1971

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