40. JEFFREY SMART
Jeffrey Smart’s major painting Outside the Ministry of 1970 is a harmony of parts. The painting pulses with what might justifiably be called “visual alliteration”. That is, it has a range of “optical melodies” that run through and serve to both form and inform the built-up composition and content of the painting.
The painting, originally exhibited in the famous Leicester Galleries in London in 1970 and held in the one private collection since that time, is the most notable of his works that use carefully controlled sequences of similar pictorial elements to create optimal visual interest. However, in this painting there is much more than simple interest. Its optical calm seems to exude a sense of underlying intrigue. These two characteristic attributes – visual harmony and mystery – are the hallmarks of some of Smart’s best and most aesthetically charged paintings.
These two attributes lend this rare painting the ambience of a pregnant pause – when a cityscape seems to hold its breath. Smart’s Outside the Ministry, created when he was forty-nine years of age, depicts an urban scene that seems captured as though it was first casually caught by eye in a moment and then laboriously conveyed by brush over many months. As a result, this conceptually elegant painting glows with lucidity, as if it was painted on the finest Sevres or Ginori porcelain - and no broad-brush work, expressionistic flourish or dark cloud is allowed to distract from the scene’s clear and sun-drenched disposition.
Furthermore, it is worth noting that the painting predominantly shows a flight of outdoor steps, a raised piazza retaining wall, a public statue and part of a large office block. These pictorial elements are arranged in a “visual alliteration” that “riffs” off the shape of the Golden Rectangle proportions (1:1.6) of a section of the wall that covers the area from the wall’s first indent to the vertical edge of the shadow line of the steps; so much so that the whole painting may be seen as a harmonised echoing of its rectilinear planes.
Unusually, there are no street scenes and no Italian autostrade in the present work. This observation points to the example set by the paintings of one of Smart’s most respected, and therefore most subtly emulated, artists: Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978). Sophia Loren is his greatest collector and Smart was probably his greatest admirer – as he cheerfully admits and as may be seen in many of his earlier paintings in the late Fifties. De Chirico generally viewed scenes from the perspective of a train window – Smart generally, as in the present painting, saw them from the perspective of a car window. Each of them were masters of painting enigmatic scenes of the type of long-shadowed forlornness that haunts cityscapes – especially those that are almost empty, seen at dusk, overhung with billboards or set beneath a sliver of distant or brooding sky. The great Apollinaire (1880-1918), the Australian Robert Hughes (1938-2012) and the American Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) each saw deeply moving poeticism in de Chirico’s imagery – perhaps because it was all expertly cast in a historicised mould of Camus-like alienation; an Existential loneliness or Post-War dislocation.
Whatever the case, Smart with the lingering attention that he gave to selected scenes together with his technical finesse and carefully arranged visual stagecraft, invites his viewers to visit an unscripted theatre of city life. Once, long ago in Roman or even late-Victorian times, a scene of outdoor steps leading to a plaza, such as those found in the present work, would be garlanded with flowers, vines would drape the walls and urns would spill with flowering plants. In the wonderful Italian Baroque pictorial, action was always interrupted in time; there was a “story” and something was happening and that something was stopped for our benefit – Ariadne was just about to spin a thread; Daphne was just about to change into a tree; a martyr was just about to receive the Crown of Heaven – those images all had delightful “stop-action” attraction. By contrast, in Smart’s Outside the Ministry there is no “story” and no action to interrupt; everything is frozen in time – an anonymous man, who is made all the more anonymous by wearing sunglasses, stands in an empty stairwell doing we know not what, while above him two suited males are seemingly engaged in a conversation – the image has an inscrutable “preserved” immobility. It is as though the viewer is presented with, and left to ponder upon, just one frame randomly clipped from the reel of an unknown movie. A head-turning and alienating “Hitchcockian” suspense or a David Lynch-like mystery pervades the present canvas.
In his life, work and words, there is much to suggest that Smart saw all these alienating factors as the melancholic malaise of our times. He often called it “savagery” – an uncivilised deficit that emptied lives of an engagement with living. A denatured aura of inanimate oddness surrounds all – we all recognise it in the present work because we have all felt it. With all this in mind, Smart’s Outside the Ministry acts as both a symptom and symbol of our Age – this alone makes it an outstanding “finger-on-the-pulse” painting.
Smart started thinking along these more intellectual lines as early as 1941 in Adelaide, the city of his birth. His explanation for this turn of content in his works is wryly informative, ‘My attraction to urban life, factories, trucks and vacant city lots came in my early 20s when I decided I’d painted my last billabong scene forever’.1
What he subsequently and slowly developed was an “at a remove” visual distancing that depicted certain aspects of cityscapes and of clashing juxtapositions, water towers, silos, bus-stops, petrol stations, truck bays and high-rise apartments that seemed to give voice to the caught-in-concrete bittersweet human complexities of urban life. However, Smart was never “cruel” in his depictions but from the balcony of his Tuscan villa and its surrounding garden distant city life looked unappealingly askew.
Smart’s paintings are so acutely presented as glimpses of views or snatches of overlooked aspects of everyday scenes that nowadays viewers commonly speak of a “Smart” cityscape, just as readily as they speak of an “Arthur Streeton” vista or a “Fred Williams” forest of saplings. Each of these artists aestheticised ubiquitous snatches of seemingly unremarkable reality to iconic effect; however, in Smart’s paintings, as in the present work, there’s always an engaging perplexity. Expressed in a nutshell sense, Smart’s ultimate aim is deceptively simple: to paint the world around him through the world within him; that is, to see it through the screen of his own intellect.
Certainly, Smart has been remarkably perceptive and assiduous. However, it must be said that the recent far more wide-ranging public recognition is due to the extraordinarily positive successes of five major retrospective exhibitions of his paintings in the last seventeen years. The five exhibitions are: Jeffrey Smart: Paintings and Studies 2002-2003 in 2003 with an essay by Professor Sasha Grishin; Jeffrey Smart: Paintings and Studies 2004-2006 in 2006 with an analysis by The Australian newspaper’s Art Critic Christopher Allen; Jeffrey Smart: Paintings and Studies 2006-2010 in 2010 with an essay by the international filmmaker Bruce Beresford - all three of these at Melbourne’s Australian Galleries; Jeffrey Smart in 2001 with a lucid examination by John McDonald and Jeffrey Smart in 2008 with an analysis by Christopher Allen each of which were held at Brisbane’s Philip Bacon Galleries as well as Jeffrey Smart: The Question of Portraiture of 2009 with scholarly insights by Rodney James at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery.
This handful of choice exhibitions was bolstered by the exhaustive research to be found in four important academic publications: Jeffrey Smart: Unpublished Paintings: 1940-2007 of 2008 by Christopher Allen; Jeffrey Smart of 2005 by Barry Pearce, Jeffrey Smart Retrospective of 1999 by Edmond Capon with Barry Pearce and Peter Quartermaine and Master of Stillness by Barry Pearce in 2015.
This range of exhibitions, retrospectives and publications gave the Australian public an opportunity to scrutinize and reassess artistic prominence. Needless to say, their resounding successes reaffirmed Smart’s artistic standing in Australia’s public and private collections as well as cementing him permanently into the nation’s cultural history.
The accomplishments and quality of all this remarkable activity (five important exhibitions, four scholarly publications and one national touring retrospective) prompted responses that were almost immediately felt in auction rooms throughout the country. Collectors and connoisseurs followed their convictions and drove the prices of Smart’s paintings to unprecedented levels. For example, his The Observer II achieved a record price of $2,000,000 (including buyer’s premium) by Menzies in 2018; Self Portrait at Papini’s of 1984-85 brought a high of A$1,260,000 (including buyer’s premium) in 2014 and his Autobahn in the Black Forest II of 1980 (once owned by Tanya Verstak, the first migrant to become Miss Australia in 1961) was sold at auction for A$1,020,000 (including buyer’s premium) in 2011.
Jeffrey Smart’s especially noteworthy Outside the Ministry is a highly accomplished and impressive painting possessing a filmic visual intensity that highlights its acutely observed psychosocial implications. The painting is an aesthetic tour de force that embodies a carefully considered compositional structure that is created with gravitas and social resonance through the distanced gaze of an empathetic observer.
1. Jeffrey Smart in Hawley, J., Sydney Morning Herald, 17 August, 1996 as cited in Capon, E., Jeffrey Smart Retrospective, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1999, p.43
Pearce, B., Jeffrey Smart, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2005
Capon, E., Jeffrey Smart Retrospective, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1999
McDonald, J., Jeffrey Smart: Paintings of the 70s and 80s, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1990
Quartermaine, P., Jeffrey Smart, 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.
Former Principal Research Fellow and Head of the School of Creative Arts
The University of Melbourne