JEFFREY SMART The Observer II
Jeffrey Smart enjoyed playing the trickster. He approached a major picture as an opportunity to conduct sly games with compositional design and geometry while passing wry comments on modern city life. Carefully developed then impeccably painted, this is why the best of his mature oils are most deliberately witty.
Smart’s major mid-career work, The Observer II, shows an official-looking man in dark suit and tie who watches people go about their daily lives. Not only is this figure equipped with powerful binoculars; there is a massive speaker looming over him to one side, hinting that if he spots something amiss the prying observer will loudly broadcast his annoyance. And Smart conveys how this neighbourhood pest takes a biased view of everyday events, for that man looks upon the community with a single jaundiced eye, not both of them.
If the elements in this humorous composition were taken from reality, the scene was invented: “My pictures are completely synthetic,” Smart has explained, “in that I move things around relentlessly, change the heights of buildings, the colours, to get to composition right.”1 The row of apartment blocks at the rear are derived from an estate on the edge of Rome, one of those innumerable housing projects that shot up with post-war reconstruction. The large green speaker is adapted from an old public address unit seen at a train station. Of course, Smart uses some power cables and a striped necktie to slip in his characteristic bright red, yellow and blue chromatic notes, always a feature of his major canvases. And he adds that monotonous bald man dressed in dark suit—inspired by a figure glanced in Milan’s financial district—a recurring motif in the artist’s unique oeuvre. While in assorted paintings this distinctive man has been used to indicate a property developer, a bureaucrat, a small town businessman or a secret policeman, the artist’s friend, the distinguished art historian Dr Christopher Allen, has written that in the strongest canvases ‘these figures have a degree of power over their environment: they are the watchers, the managers, the controllers.’2
Sure enough, The Observer II has this conspicuous figure perform the role of humourless administrator, probably working for an obscure civil authority. With his disapproving eye grossly magnified by a lens, this self-important little official surveys a residential estate, ever ready to reprimand and report those who dare infringe trifling by-laws. Keep off the grass; do not run; park only in the designated area; no ball games here; no smoking there; fun and high spirits not allowed.
But what is Smart’s point? Why did he depict this?
In broad cultural terms, Jeffrey Smart was of a generation which savoured comedy and ambiguity, devising scenes that used these qualities to comment on modern experience. Indeed, the artist once told me he crafted paintings as a pictorial equivalent to those telling witty stories penned by Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell or Kingsley Amis. Laughter is intended and goes hand in hand with a precise analysis of urban customs and everyday mannerisms, especially in how this painter uses geometry. He will place or repeat shapes to emphasise patterns in behaviour, implying how modern people get absorbed into a routine.
Smart accomplishes this in The Observer II with a cleverly understated arrangement of circles: note the shape of the loudspeaker, the binocular’s lenses, the bald head. Through their positioning and size, the painting’s design establishes a form of dialogue between these adjacent circles: the speaker, binoculars and man are made to operate in unison.
Then again, the overall form described by the huge loudspeaker and its supporting bracket rhymes visually with the positioning of the man’s arms and his smooth round head. There is a doubling, a visual form of echo, taking place. Caught up in his assigned task, the observer is shown to have become much like the machine beside him. The visual humour in Smart’s picture runs deep.
The longer we quietly look, the more subtle echoes and suggestive patterns become apparent. Like how those blue and red stripes on the man’s tie appear the same width of the balconies in distant apartment blocks. And how those buildings look rather machine-like, recalling banks of computers. This is deliberate, for The Observer II was among a cluster of early 1980s canvases in which Smart sought to interweave visual aspects of printed circuits and computer components with the rectangular form of high rise buildings. His purpose was to allude to the high-tech nature of urban life, and how computerisation is synonymous with increasingly regulated modern cities.3 (Smart would joke that people in ultra-modern buildings were becoming like electrical pulses inside a microchip.) This level of meaning explains that subtle ambiguity in The Observer II where the brightly coloured cables seem to emerge from those massed blocks of flats which suggestively double as a gigantic mainframe.
Detail by detail we find layers of symbolic allusion, although there is a further intended meaning to The Observer II which is staring us right in the face. Smart enjoyed slipping into pictures visual jokes and droll double-entendres, saying cryptic things in a code intended for art collectors. Actually, the picture was prompted by that hackneyed saying that you can tell a good painting by checking whether the eyes follow you around the room—so Jeffrey Smart made an immense painting featuring an eye that does exactly that. It follows you around the room. But as he refined the design, the painter mused over the implications of what was turning into a curious reversal of looking: normally people will look into the world of the picture, but this work is looking outward at us and the world we inhabit.
Christopher Allen recalls that Smart lifted the idea of portraying a man using binoculars from a work by the Canadian contemporary, the painter Alex Colville (1920-2013), although Jeffrey Smart has given the motif his own quite characteristic twist.4 Of course, some figures in Smart’s later compositions will glance back at the viewer in the gallery, usually in a casual way, occasionally with a friendly smile. However, this painting has the severe, humourless man in a black suit most intently inspecting us. So instead of you and I inspecting this picture, running our eyes over it as we form a judgment, the painting is closely assessing the viewer, even using binoculars to decide whether we measure up, with a loudspeaker trained in our direction ready to sound a warning if the picture finds us at fault.
The Observer II represents Jeffrey Smart painting in top gear. Mixing artistic invention with a cheeky commentary on modern life, he portrays an official most intently trying to supervise the viewer.
1. Quoted in Pearce, B., Jeffrey Smart: A Retrospective, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, 1999, p.178
2. Allen, C., Jeffrey Smart: Unpublished Paintings 1940-2007, Australian Galleries, Melbourne, 2008, p.38
3. Pearce, B., Master of Stillness: Jeffrey Smart, Wakefield Press, Kent Town, 2012, p.16
4. Allen, C., Jeffrey Smart, op.cit., p.38
Dr Christopher Heathcote