To understand the paintings of Jeffrey Smart is to enter the world of signs and symbols and to acknowledge a language that is entirely Smart’s own. Jeffrey Smart left Australia in 1963 but it is the period prior to this that forms Smart’s thinking and marks his mature style. By the middle sixties Smart was painting against a tide of expressionism and abstraction that looked to American and European painters who opposed realism in favour of a subjective response in painterly and expressive forms.
Smart played to his instincts by flattening forms, turning up the enigma button and keeping his ideology cool. His images become almost banal and geometric; perfect worlds – a mise-en-scène – in which to place his figures. To this, Smart added a literacy and images from cinema, books, and music.
Jeffrey Smart did not overplay the meaning of his paintings and often resisted others applying concerted critical analysis. Smart is quoted as saying that for him ‘composition is everything’ and this quality of harmony and balance, is something noted by Ermes de Zan, Smart’s partner and the subject of The Two-up Game (Portrait of Ermes) 2006 (TarraWarra Museum of Art collection, Victoria): ‘He seemed to sense when the art reached perfection. When you think of Jeffrey’s art and the construction of the compositions and the geometry behind this, you come to realise he knew a lot about mathematics. He had a certain feeling for the elegance of geometry and composition. The golden mean for Jeffrey was absolutely the right thing. Almost like a chord of music. I think that meant a lot.’1
The Jeffrey Smart painting of our sale, Third Study for The Two-up Game 2006, is from the Two-up series exhibited at Australian Galleries in 2006. There were two larger versions including The Two-up Game (Portrait of Ermes), and three studies, with our present lot, the more finished of the paintings. It is intriguing to exhibit all painted versions and two pencil and wash drawings. The presentation is itself a mini exhibition and indeed a worthy research subject. It gives breadth to Smart’s vision and to his process, from impulse, through drawing to finished paintings.
To be accorded a world, as Smart is, is a further acknowledgement of Smart’s themes and images: the alone figure, the bald headed and coated man, road signs and markings, the poster, the bus, truck, and silos. Containers are numerous in Smarts painting, doing what containers do, sitting block-like, numbered, and stencilled. They are as central to the imagery of Third Study for The Two-up Game as they are to Smart’s Second Study for Containers with Storm Clouds 1990. In this important picture, Smart uses containers as building blocks as he orders them Lego-like into formation. They have value in colour terms: orange, red to green, with the added punctuation of yellow and dove grey. It is a significant colourway and with the addition of peacock blue and the lettering art u – ELEXIVAN, ITEL and TRANS Smart’s picture takes form. The walking man is Smart’s final placement. Caught in a beam of light, the figure’s shadow casts perfectly onto the green container.
Third Study for The Two-up Game holds a principal place in the Two-up series. Two-up, the betting game, played with pennies, gave Smart the impulse for a painting and he quickly saw the possibilities as much as the challenge of grouping figures within a painting. ‘In the war they would have two-up games. I think he liked the idea of a composition of figures in that background, against the containers, against the trucks.’2
Third Study for The Two-up Game does not differ from The Two-up Game (Portrait of Ermes). The group to the left circle the central figure in his red vest as he flicks the coins skyward. Their faces rise in anticipation of the coins’ return and each their win. Smart is at pains to separate the physique and the clothing of each character. The group stands in light but Smart uses shadow cleverly to anchor their standing circle.
The containers, blocked in thickly, seem softened, their colours a primary mix combined with teal blue and ochre. Just off-centre, at the edge of the containers, and aptly completing Smart’s golden mean, stands his beautiful man in three quarter view. Smart has orchestrated this image through careful placement and his dedication to showing the world, not through a filter of common consent, but in his own image, where individuals and small groups as those of Third Study for The Two-up Game exist.
1. Ermes De Zan, quoted in Hart, D. & Edwards, R., Jeffrey Smart, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2021, p.132
2. Ibid., p.133