39. JEFFREY SMART
There is always a hidden visual power in Jeffrey Smart’s paintings. His paintings are never simple scenes that are simply rendered – always there is an organising principle. Behind the visible scene there is the invisible mind that orders. Smart’s paintings are never the record of a scene but the reconfiguration of a mental event. Smart scans urban environments to gather freeze-frame mental snapshots captured while travelling through carefully selected urban environments. His paintings are always very much thought into existence.
Smart’s paintings, like his Level Crossing of 1997, so often re-present the familiar as the unfamiliar in ways that isolate a dislocated oddness that removes the scales from one’s eyes. All great art has its effects - preferably lasting and feeling effects. Smart’s use of the everyday does not eulogise the everyday, but makes it the subject of aesthetic consideration to rehabilitate the viewer’s freshness of vision. In many ways this is no less than what Arthur Streeton (1867–1943) and Frederick McCubbin (1855-1917) did with the Australian landscape, Fred Williams (1927-1982) did with the Australian bush and Howard Arkley (1951-1999) did with suburbia. One sees differently after seeing their works – so it is with Smart.
The Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) wrote in his diary of the ‘strangeness’ of people and places after a long illness, travel or a stay in hospital – faces seem odd, distances seem longer, shadows are deeper – everything is lent greater significance and permeated with the aesthetic effects of displacement. Likewise, Smart’s compositions are always arresting and mysterious and they are driven by an inner love of ambiguity and a desire to capture and then convey an aesthetic “stillness” or, rather, a sense of pictorial immobility as though images are ‘caught’ on canvas as they were once caught in the artist’s mind. This quality of pictorial apprehension lends visual presence to accomplished paintings such as his The Guiding Spheres II (Homage to Cézanne) of 1979/80 and Approach to a City III of 1968-69 and, of course, the present painting Level Crossing of 1997.
Looking at Smart’s paintings in an exhibition in his honour after his recent death (20 June 2013) entitled Jeffrey Smart 1921-2013: Recondita Armonia-Strange Harmonies of Contrast at the University of Sydney Art Gallery (2 November 2013 – 7 March 2014) one can profitably view his works as selected still shots from the flickering of a filmic imagination. An imagination, as his life-long friend the writer David Malouf, amply points out in the catalogue, is as unique and vivifying as any in Australian art.
Still, there is more at work than just the imagination – there is structure - the hidden scaffold that supports pictorial power.
A marvellous thing happened to Smart in 1939. This occurred at the age of eighteen when he met the Adelaide female 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 – it was made rather than created. 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, tenacity, modifications, sketches, studies and the like. Smart’s paintings are less “breathed in”, than sought out. Certainly, Smart’s works pulse with insight but his artistic procedure is much more meticulous, methodical and intellectual. Black’s emphasis upon the making of a picture highlighted for Smart that a good painting is brought into existence through visual methods and mental decisions - it is not a simple reproduction of the visible world. In this mindset painting is, above all else, a construction and constructions have rules, geometry and principles.
Smart’s most common compositional device is the ancient Golden Rectangle. The famous Golden Rectangle was known to the Pre-Socratic Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras (560-480 BC) but was first published in the book Divina Proportione (Divine Proportions) in 1509 by Fra Luca Bartolomeo de Pacioli (1444-1514), who was Leonardo da Vinci’s mathematics teacher. A Golden Rectangle is formed by drawing a square, marking a midpoint on one of its sides and using that point to describe an arc with the opposite corner as a radius. This arc is then used to extend an edge of the square to form a rectangle. The resultant rectangle, with a ration of 1 to 1.6 (the proportions of the common credit card) has always been considered to have pleasing proportions and is famously used in the façade of the Parthenon in Athens, the United Nations building in New York, designs by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012) and the Villa Stein at Garches in Paris designed by the French architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965).
With this in mind Smart’s accomplished painting Level Crossing of 1997 takes upon further significance. A careful scrutiny of its compositional structure reveals that it is composed in a way that presents a pictorial balance between three Golden Rectangles and a series of related rectilinear shapes (the largest Golden Rectangle is formed by the outline of the blue truck on the left of the canvas; the next is the striped hoarding to the right and the smallest is formed by the yellow truck to the left). Most of the painting’s pictorial elements are contained within these rectilinear or squared-off structures and all are as carefully arranged as a Mondrian non-objective De Stijl painting.
Yet, Smart’s painting contains no obvious abstract feature and its two trucks and the traffic hoardings are composed as pictorial elements in ways that approach the spatial harmonies of abstraction. This observation is supported by the way Smart has arranged the diagonal lines of the road barriers, the central line marking and the road’s edging strip. Each of these visual elements either channels the viewer’s gaze into the centre of the canvas (as in the lower elements) or curtains the composition to “compress” attention upon the longitudinal visual interest of its mid-ground lateral elements. As a result, viewed as a whole composition, the painting’s visual elements seem perfectly balanced from any angle or position, even if the painting is inverted or viewed on its side.
Yet, one cannot help recognising its visual elements – the viewer “reads” the painting as a tableau of meanings. If this is the case, and Smart would agree that it is, then the painting may be profitably be seen as an uncommon blend of form and feeling and of composition and content. Smart’s aesthetic procedures are unique, as Malouf and Barry Pearce have fully established. No other artist so evocatively addresses the bleak realities of the urban environment and presents such well-ordered and poetically humanistic interpretations of it. Smart’s thoughtfully engendered and painstakingly rendered paintings are reminders of the ubiquities of industrialisation and his Level Crossing of 1997 is one of the finest of these.
Smart was a deeply contemplative artist who took his aesthetic purpose very seriously and selected and depicted significant or poetically inflected insights. As a consequence, Smart’s briefly perceived glimpses of industrialised landscapes lend to his paintings the glancing beauties of a vignette - as though the image is captured in the blink of an eye, while one drives past and is sealed or removed from it. Considered in these ways, Smart’s painting Level Crossing of 1997, created at the age of seventy-six, is a consummate work of technical skill, mental acuity and compositional finesse.
1. Smart, J., Not Quite Straight, Heinemann, Melbourne, 1996, p.57.
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.
Emeritus Principal Research Fellow and Head, School of Creative Arts
The University of Melbourne