43. JEFFREY SMART
In 1964, Jeffrey Smart stood on the threshold of a settled life and career as an expatriate Australian painter in Europe. Until then he had, by living and working in Australia, been able to accumulate the money required for travel in Europe. From this time on, he could rightly regard himself as established as a painter and was able to change the cycle to one where he lived and worked in Europe and would return home to Australia for purposes of exhibiting his work only. This was the pattern that would remain in place for the rest of Smart’s highly successful career.
The period was marked by several important career milestones. He was included in the major Australian art events of the era: Recent Australian Painting, at the Whitechapel Gallery, London in 1961, and Australian Painting: Colonial, Impressionist, Contemporary at the Tate Gallery, London in 1963. At the same time, important exhibitions of his new work were held or planned in Rome and Sydney. It was in the mid-1960s, around the time he painted Ticket Boxes, Catania, that he could be said to have arrived at his maturity as an artist. A sort of general acknowledgment of this was signalled in the purchase by Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria of a painting that has since become the artist’s signature piece and arguably his best known work; The Cahill Expressway. Painted in 1962, the painting entered the NGV collection in 1963, and has been a popular favourite ever since. At the time of his death in 2013, in his nineties, he was still painting and was widely regarded as the country’s most important living artist. The continuing interest in Smart and his work is underpinned by the recent auction sale by Menzies of The Observer II 1983-84 for $2,000,000 (including buyer’s premium).1
Ticket Boxes, Catania, painted two years after The Cahill Expressway, shares with it a number of familiar Smart characteristics: man-made geometry, subdued mood, a certain deadpan approach to paint handling and palette, as well as a subtle lightness of touch in the subject matter. There are also some significant differences between the two. The Cahill Expressway is a recognisable and more or less faithful rendering of the famous Sydney landmark and approach to the Harbour Bridge, while Ticket Boxes, Catania embodies the anonymity of a generic contemporary building. It could have been painted anywhere in the world.
For Smart, the idea for a painting might come from a chance glimpse through the window of a car while driving through Europe. On more than a few occasions, famous Smart paintings had their genesis in a “Stop the car!” moment. A quick sketch on the side of the road, a few snapshots and later, in the studio, the motif developed through a number of drafts: another sketch, a finished drawing, watercolour, pastel, and then an oil sketch, or two, before the composition was ready and could reach its resolution in a final version. At all times Smart’s work employs a rigorous internal logic: architectural features are integrated with figures, perspective is used in a correct manner, and light and shade and weather conditions all support the composition’s structural foundation. Smart’s use of the Golden Section, the classical theory of proportion2 which originated in ancient Greece and has continued to find adherents ever since (and in particular played an important part in the work of Smart’s Renaissance art hero, Piero della Francesca (1416-92)) is well documented.
The purpose of Smart’s depiction of the modern world, its geometries, textures, shadows and forms lies in his curiosity about the creative process itself. Each Smart painting is an exercise in resolving certain ideas. Like a chess player, or a watchmaker, Smart sets himself a visual problem which he then sets out, using tools such as the Golden Section, to solve. Often the germ, or motivating idea of a painting, is cloaked by Smart to an extent that it often remains hidden from casual viewers, and its arcane depths may even be veiled to seasoned Smart fans.
The model for the figure in Ticket Boxes, Catania was Keith Looby (born 1940), a young artist and friend of Smart’s friend Brian Dunlop (1938-2009). Looby had also been the model for Cooper Park 1 3 painted in 1962. Smart has occasionally been criticised for the way he paints figures. The statements he makes about his own art often ring ingenuous, and yet the comments made about the central figure of The Cahill Expressway are useful in understanding the role of the figure in this work:
The truth is I put figures in mainly for scale, the way Corbusier always drew a figure beside his buildings. The fat man in the dark suit, in various guises, is in many of my paintings… You have to be very careful because as soon as you put a figure in a painting the viewer’s eye goes straight to it like a magnet. So I try not to make them too interesting: they are never beautiful or sexy. 4
If we accept this, we can say Smart is using the figure for formal reasons, with any other associations being incidental. The figure leaning against the ticket box railing represents nothing more than a vertical element in a composition that operates mainly as a series of horizontal elements progressing across composition. The various bands are modulated or articulated in a rhythmic way, and a subtle impetus, a sense of direction, caused by the source of light from left to right. The roof line, the repetitive shadows, the ticket box windows and the line railings, all form a rhythmic dynamic that appears to extend across the painting and by implication beyond it. In the interests of creating a visual resonance and nuance, the composition also incorporates elements that Smart used to adjust the dynamic, to generate balance. The pose of the figure offers a counterbalance to left-right impetus by facing left, i.e. in the opposite direction, and by glancing over to face us, drawing us in. In doing so, the directional impetus is also re-directed outwards.
As well as possessing a deep understanding of Classical painting, Smart drew on an enormous range of interests in literature, poetry, music, contemporary art and architecture and his paintings are full of discrete references to these interests. He was a highly civilised man who used his paintings as a means of making commentary and criticism. The genesis of a painting, the kernel of an idea that might lie deep within a painting might derive from any of these fields, and in the course of producing it might find further inspiration in another. In his recent essay on Smart’s life in Italy5 for example, Christopher Heathcote describes how Smart was stimulated by contemporary architecture, in particular that of Gio Ponti (1891-1979) as well as the film directors Luchino Visconti (1906-1976), Vittorio de Sica (1901-1974) and Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007), and there is no doubt that the present painting contains a flavour of Cinecittà, the Italian Hollywood.
It’s widely known that Smart liked to listen to music while at work in his studio. In his discussion of Listening to Bach 2004, Christopher Allen6 examines the idea that the painting is analogous with music by Bach. Smart rarely offers a direct clue to the purpose of a painting, yet here we have a title that is the key to understanding the work. On the surface it depicts a typical Smart concept of an industrial scene with a factory wall, weird pipes and tanks, street signage, a truck and workman with the small and yet pivotal detail that he is wearing headphones. He is the one listening to Bach, or is it Smart that is listening while he is in the act of painting, or is the composition itself Smart’s visualisation of a piece of music? Or all of the above? It’s all possible in Smart’s world, where references and associations can hang on a visually tiny thread.
Not all of Smart’s paintings are as readily unlocked as Listening to Bach, and it is rare for Smart to make his workings known so obviously. Barry Pearce, a close acquaintance of Smart, also noted a connection between music and his art, but when he put this to Smart the comment was met with a flat denial. 7
The role played by music in his work could offer a meaningful additional way for us to understand Ticket Boxes, Catania. The basic format of the painting, the series of bands, starting with the numbers, the roof line and in particular the black openings are each rhythmically placed across the length of the composition are rather like sheet music. These black windows could represent the tempo; the phrasing, a separate different rhythm is set up by the jagged ‘S’ shaped shadows on the booth walls; while the filigree diagonals in blue which are formed by the blue steel tube aisles render a rather neat suggestion of surging music as well as recalling the appearance of the strings section, adding to notion of an orchestra. To complete this interpretation of the painting we might see the figure as a conductor, with the relaxed, slouched pose containing something of a maestro at rest during an interlude in the music. Its slouched forward attitude also recalls the treble clef or its alternative, the bass clef.
To complete this reading, it does not require a great leap to see the ticket boxes not as the entry to a sports venue, but as a place where one might buy tickets for a musical performance. The irony that fine music is here represented as not so different to attending a football match is not beyond Smart’s way of thinking.
Smart’s best paintings, which were painted from the mid-1960s onwards, combine bold compositions with arcane refinements, where the viewer is invited to engage with the painting on several layers. His paintings offer the viewer very little in the form of overt iconography and by appearing to be so ordinary can almost approach the condition of abstraction. It is all a very neat balancing act, because the artist dares to be ordinary and runs the risk of pitching his work over our heads, or more correctly, under our expectations. With paintings such as Ticket Boxes, Catania Smart set the pattern for the coming years, where archness, inside jokes, sophisticated contradictions could be explored and developed, and where such intricacies are the norm.
1. Menzies’ 20th Anniversary Sale, Australian & International Fine Art & Sculpture, Melbourne, 26 April 2018, lot 31
2. The division of a line so that the whole is to the greater part as that part is to the smaller part (i.e. in a ratio of 1 to 1/2 (√5 + 1)), a proportion which is considered to be particularly pleasing to the eye.
3. Cooper Park 1 1962 was a comparatively large painting that was included in the major exhibition of Australian Art that was seen at various venues in Australia before touring to the Tate Gallery, London and Canada. At one time, the painting held the record price on the auction market for Jeffrey Smart, and its sale at Sotheby’s, Melbourne, on 25 August, 1998 for $159,250 (including buyer’s premium) marked the beginning of a boom in Smart’s work.
4. Jeffrey Smart, quoted in Pearce, B., Jeffrey Smart, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2005, p.136
5. Heathcote, C., ‘Jeffrey Smart in "Il Boom" Italy’ [online]. Quadrant, vol. 60, no. 7/8, July 2016, pp.96-105
6. Allen, C,. Jeffrey Smart Unpublished Paintings 1940-2007, Australian Galleries, Melbourne, 2008 p.66 (illus.)
7. Pearce, B., op cit., p.32
Timothy Abdallah BA