Menzies Art Brands

JEFFREY SMART, Waiting Containers, Syracuse Harbour, 1977


Jeffrey Smart once made the remark that he enjoyed spending time amidst the ambience of commercial ports and docks. He had a passion for sketching and photographing shipping containers, structures and sea-bound freight but occasionally would get into a scrape when a dockworker inquired: ‘What are you doing?’

Jeffrey Smart first visited Sicily in March 1964 with Justin O’Brien, on their way to spend six months on the Greek island of Skyros.1 Smart subsequently travelled through Sicily in April 1968 with another expatriate artist, Bryan Westwood. This was a year after he had settled in Rome and a time when Smart’s love of Italy and his penchant for industrial forms and modern European settings in his art were taking a new direction and shape. No doubt Smart would have taken in the thriving Sicilian port of Syracuse and filed it away in his memory for later use.

Waiting Containers, Syracuse Harbour is the final of four works which were painted in Tuscany nearly a decade later in 1977. These followed a road trip accompanied this time by his partner Ermes de Zan. It is an important painting, lying halfway between the motif of single containers mounted on trucks, reminiscent of the majestic Truck and Trailer Approaching a City, 1973, from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and later paintings from the 1980s and 1990s in which multiple shipping containers are placed adjacent to or stacked on top of each other, rather like giant building blocks or miniature cities. 

For Smart, these two paintings are both eloquent essays on the beauty and synergies of the contemporary world as well as being intricate and patiently considered studies in geometry and structured form. Truck and Trailer Approaching a City is divisible into a series of harmonious parts in which Smart ‘wanted to see if [he] could bring off a satisfactory composition which had a line down the centre, dividing it into two equal parts ...’2 The four paintings of Syracuse Harbour also work with the dichotomy of rectangle and square: the aim being to use classical proportions to achieve a desired sense of stillness and repose, a frozen moment in time. From study through to the completed work, Smart experimented with placement and colour, gradually refining the composition and eliminating extraneous detail or fuss.

An elaborate and powerful distillation of Smart’s observations and thoughts, Waiting Containers, Syracuse Harbour reveals the expatriate Australian artist’s love of art and inspiration drawn from a variety of places and times. The arrangement of the brightly coloured, three-dimensional shapes and textured surfaces are reminiscent of corrugated iron fences he painted in Australia and Italy and the densely painted vertical lines he encountered in the sarcophagi murals of Saqqara, Egypt. Smart also draws on the style of the revered Italian master Piero della Francesca. Both artists position their geometric shapes according to an elaborate system of orthogonal lines. These converge in a single vanishing point, which in Smart’s painting is reinforced by the patterned pavement and low-slung
horizon line. 

Jeffrey Smart travelled to Australia in March 1978, specifically to attend his first exhibition at Australian Galleries. This exhibition featuredWaiting Containers, Syracuse Harbour along with the three preliminary studies, the earlierTruck and Trailer Approaching a City3and a number of major new cityscape, industrial androad sign works such asThe Directors,1977, which was acquired by the Art Gallery of Western Australia. 

Art critics in Melbourne responded favourably to the new works, The Australian critic Ronald Millar commented that while lesser painters ‘simply catalogue the commonplace’, Smart ‘intensifies the real and makes it into revelation’.4 In this vein, the dark sky painted softly in mauve and grey, is still and low-keyed, a wonderfully moody foil to the brightly coloured trucks and their strongly articulated forms.

Rodney James BA (Hons), MA


1. Smart, J., Not quite straight,Heinemann, Melbourne, 1996, p.362

2. Smart, J., 1999, quoted in

3. Although not listed in the catalogue,Truck and and trailer approaching a city was exhibited along with two other worksReflected Arrowsand Study for reflected Arrows. I am grateful to Jeffrey Smart’s archivist, Stephen Rogers, for drawing my attention to this fact.

4. Millar, R., ‘Urban Visions from Foreign Lands’,The Australian, 10 April 1978

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