37. JEFFREY SMART
Jeffrey Smart’s Bus by the Tiber has an exceptional provenance. The painting has been held in the one private collection since its original acquisition and exhibited in both Sydney and London. It has never before been offered at auction.
In addition, there is much to suggest that Smart’s Bus by the Tiber of 1977-78 offers penetrating insights into the workings of his creative mind.
Firstly, the present painting is not a mere picture of something that was seen, but of something that was created into being. That is, it was thought into existence. Consider, for a moment, the cravated Smart on the balcony of his sprawling Tuscan villa stretching back in a favourite chair ruminating on a recent car ride (he did not drive) through the bewildering profferings of an Italian city - perhaps even, as the title of the present painting clearly suggests, Rome itself. Hundreds of flickering images of the scenes offered by just such a ride flash through his mind – his photographs record them; colliding images confirm them and slowly his sensations condense into mental impressions. In other words, the subject matter of Smart’s best paintings, such as his Bus by the Tiber, is sought and then caught.
Sometimes, somewhere, somehow during his many driving expeditions there were some things that his mind responded to – for Smart, it was always a type of gathering; a type of capture.
What Smart captured and responded to were oddly pregnant silences, empty public housing estates (with no steam or smoke rising, no trees, no animals, no children, no signs of life) and deserted scenes. He preferred images of urban existence as though it was contained in a contaminated zone, where human life seemed uncannily denatured. For him, human beings seemed to survive rather than thrive in their urban environments. He preferred such images, not because he was perverse or morose but because of the way that they seemed to mirror what he saw as the deadening aspects of the contemporary urban city – a “savage environment”, he called it. Such observations help to unfold the uncanny power of Smart’s imagery. Always in Smart, we feel the presence of a weighty theme arising from an empty scene.
It is important to stress that this is not a type of stoic world-weariness or emotional lassitude (as, perhaps, found in Edward Hopper (1882-1967) works) and nothing like the imperious attitude found in the writings of his literary contemporary Gore Vidal (1925-2012) at near-by Salerno on the Amalfi Coast. Smart is much more compassionate – he is never acerbic and does not smirk or roll his eyes. Despite appearances, his is not an aristocratic gaze. That is, Smart’s position is nowhere near that afforded by an “on high” view, but more in the nature of a private rumination born of a conscious emotionally distanced seclusion away from the scene – his was an almost Proustian enterprise. Moreover, Smart’s cityscape scenes are never nostalgic – for him, it’s never Italy as it once was, but as it has now become; likewise, there is in his paintings no sense of “escapism” or easeful “retreat”. Furthermore, Smart’s paintings are never otherworldly but very much “this-worldly” and he reveals this world anew. To put it bluntly: Smart is a head-turning sceneshifter.
The solid take-home fact is that Smart’s cityscape paintings are pointedly observational. So much so, that we all now instantly recognise his meticulously painted cityscapes as the lived-through and unvarnished realities that confront us on an almost daily basis. However, Smart does not make such urban ubiquities any more bearable – that is, he does not prettify them. More to the point: he makes them ponderable. This sense of ponderability is one of his greatest achievements.
Secondly, Bus by the Tiber typifies Smart’s creative ability to engender specific aesthetic response. It has the ability to “move” or “centre” the mind of the viewer in a particular direction through its associationalist arrangement of forms, in ways that an ordinary photograph could not. Paintings and photographs are images that call upon different modes of cognition: the eye sees; the mind reads. Smart’s Bus by the Tiber has “aboutness” that can, as we have seen above, be “read” coherently and credibly. The painting “speaks” to the viewer, rather than the viewer to it. The painting “leads” the viewer to its content rather than invites viewers to pour their own into it. The overall aim is prompt reflexive self-talk. To achieve this transmissible “readability” Smart makes very refined use of the Surrealist concept of “frisson” (a shiver or thrill) – more correctly called “Convulsive Beauty” – a type of shudder of recognition. This concept of aesthetic effect is much used and misused but never fully explained. Even its originator (André Breton) is almost silent on it, except on one brief occasion in a 1937 publication (oddly enough with a photograph of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in the middle of the text). The concept is, in short, a type of “goose-bump” effect that uses incongruence as a cognitive “jump-start” – one might say that it jolts the receiver into higher amplitude that offers better reception and a finer state of tune. It is an aesthetic device that is often characterised by a focussed vacancy; a stress on content rather than narrative; psychologised tension; contextual displacement and a sense that something that the viewer did not see has already just happened – that an unknown event remains unobserved. It is not at all about shock (as is often thought) but more about transfixed thought – like a subjectively reflective pause in a world of objective diversions – a freeze-frame fascination. All of these ideas find a happy home in Smart’s mental toolbox. One thing remains certain: Smart’s Bus by the Tiber of 1977-78 clearly possesses a silent stasis that falls directly in line with the stop-action mystique of this important Twentieth Century aesthetic concept.
Thirdly, the present painting has compositional finesse. Smart’s paintings have distinctive structure - the hidden scaffold that supports their pictorial power.
A marvellous thing happened to Smart in 1939. This occurred at the age of eighteen when he met the much-underrated Adelaide artist Dorrit Black (1891-1951) at her home and studio in the suburb of Magill in central Adelaide. The meeting between Smart and Black was quite eventful and the memory of it stayed with the young artist, even fifty-eight years later when he recounted it in his autobiography:
While I was at Art School, a group of us were invited to Dorrit Black’s studio. … 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. ... 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. 1
It suddenly dawned upon the young Smart that a painting is a pictorial construction. In his mind making a thing was a more comfortable idea than creating it. Creation implied supreme talent and being overcome by inspiration. It must have come as quite a relief to hear of another way of producing a painting. The fact is that very few paintings are “inspired” (literarily “breathed in”) and many more are based upon dogged work, numerous modifications, sketches, studies and the like.
With this in mind, it is useful to remind oneself that Smart did not just simply paint his canvasses – he constructed them. That is, he first carefully planned his paintings out in a series of compositional arrangements and constantly reworked them. It is as though there are two stages in his creative procedure: there is the underlying structure of proportions, shapes, and visual arrangements with their repetitions, harmonies and balances; then there is the overlaid superstructure with its elements from observable reality. Consequently, Smart’s paintings were often carefully gridded out and the images were then recreated on canvas with many changes being made to the placement and scale of the forms and elements in the final painting
One may clearly see this in his preparatory study for Bus by the Tiber – his First Study for Bus by the Tiber of the same years and the very closely related colour lithograph The Waiting Bus of 1986. Each of these studies clearly shows variations of composition that became more fully resolved in the present final painting. Note, for example, the reworking of the left side of the composition; the removal of the human figures; the change in the character of the sky; the shifting of the right side of the work over to the left; the addition of a traffic sign; the straightening-out of edging and, most obviously, the rearrangement of the car park markings to suggest a labyrinth. Smart’s more heavily shadowed completed painting (Bus by the Tiber) has much more of a silent foreboding with its miasma of effects and shadows, darkening clouds and eeriness – it has what he called “visual weight”.
Smart’s fame abounds: in 1999, The Art Gallery of New South Wales mounted a large and highly successful retrospective exhibition of his 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 1940–2011, which toured to the TarraWarra Museum of Art in Victoria in late December 2012.
Jeffrey Smart’s Bus by the Tiber 1977-78 is a signature painting by the artist that exemplifies his unique and incisive artistic imagination.
1. Smart, J., Not Quite Straight, Heinemann, Melbourne, 1996, p.57; also cited in Pearce, B., Jeffrey Smart, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2005, p.40
Allen, C., Jeffery Smart Unpublished Paintings 1940-2007, Australian Galleries and Thames and Hudson, Melbourne 2008
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
Pearce, B., Jeffrey Smart, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2005
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