Conversation Piece 1998 is an exemplary work by Jeffrey Smart that highlights the importance of pictorial innovation and its interaction with time-honoured visual traditions. Smart wanted his paintings and drawings to match the great artists of the past but look and feel contemporary. His aim was to create the perfectly composed and weighted picture.
Conversation Piece and its associated sketches and studies were conceived and developed over 1997-98. This was a period when Smart was dividing his time between his home in rural Tuscany, short trips to nearby Italian towns and cities, including Florence, Bologna and Arezzo, and visits to other European destinations. He was also preparing for a major retrospective of his work that was planned for the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1999.
Smart was inspired during these travels by the seemingly offhand, simple or commonplace. Catching a fleeting glimpse of an unusual form, an interesting congregation of people on the pavement or a structure such as a new bridge or overpass being built along the road. Sights that resonated were committed to memory or sketched in beautifully detailed small pencil drawings. Smart would regularly ask a driver of a car to stop so that he could more closely inspect the roadway signs, forms and colours of Europe’s evolving and modern metropolises.
The industrial estate outside Arezzo was one of his favourite places to paint in Italy. Arezzo was situated close to his 600-year-old Tuscan villa/farmhouse, just off the E35 autostrada that linked Rome, Florence and Bologna. This bustling city, steeped in medieval history, nourished his work after he left the hurly burly of Rome in the early 1970s for the relative sanctuary and quiet of the country. Although Conversation Piece does not specifically identify the location of its subject – in some ways this would be contrary to Smart’s more paradoxical intentions – it does resemble other paintings he did in the same area, notably Arezzo Panorama 2002-03. This is a slightly later work with similar dimensions and depicts the tail end of a truck, carrying a yellow-fluted shipping container.
The elongated, predella-like format and setting of Conversation Piece sets its tone – the painting is composed primarily of contrasting bands, blocks and rectangles. The overall effect is of a perfectly weighted equilibrium of form, colour and light. However, the composition of Conversation Piece is also ingeniously arranged around a radiating arc. The centrally placed truck and trailer, carrying dual containers, takes centre stage, moving into the picture frame, from right to left. This sense of a circular motion and rhythmic, animated rotation is reinforced by the way the truck compliantly follows in the path of another truck and by the subtle suggestion of tyre marks left as residue on the slate-grey asphalt. Added to this sense of restrained vitality is the jostling interaction of red, yellow and blue and the placement of three figures on the left having a conversation, from which the work takes its title. These figures clearly have visual presence and iconographic importance.
Jeffrey Smart once told me that he didn’t paint portraits, only pictures with people.1 To some extent this is true, but it’s a reductive view that the sole function of people in his art is to serve as visual props. A more expansive explanation was provided by the former Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Edmund Capon: ‘The presence of the figure gives it purpose and a human dimension that strikes a chord within our own willing and receptive psyches.’2
In Conversation Piece, there is an intriguing interaction between the two men and woman that invites as many questions as it answers. Who are they, why are they there, where did they come from and what are they conversing about? Although it is impossible to know the answer, there is a sense that the painting is richer in meaning through their presence.
Important in this respect is the role and significance of the Sacra Conversatione (Sacred or Holy Conversation) theme to Smart and his art. This is an aspect of his work previously alluded to by my Menzies colleague Professor Ken Wach. Wach’s 2016 essay compared Parking Lot Near Bologna of 1992,3 with its two figures casually chatting, and the three figures depicted in Final Study for Conversation Piece 1998. The Sacra Conversatione, he noted, originated in the early Renaissance period in Italy and represented saints, scholars and patrons, for the first time, as both physically accessible and human in scale.
Depictions of the Sacra Conversatione were important to Smart on several fronts. On one level they connected him to some of his favourite Italian Renaissance artists, notably Piero della Francesca (1416-1492). A noted innovator in his own right, della Francesca introduced everyday people into paintings and showed them engaged in casual conversation or interacting off to the side of the main subject. Most notable are the two groomsmen conversing in the first stanza of the Legend of the True Cross fresco cycle in Arezzo, 1452-1466, and the wonderfully enigmatic group of three figures depicted in his Flagellation of Christ c1445-1450 (held in the National Gallery of the
Marches, Urbino). The latter has intrigued and baffled generations of art historians.
Smart takes della Francesca’s infamous triumvirate from Flagellation of Christ and adapts it for his own needs. He has substituted the elaborate postures, clothing and classical architecture for a bare-chested man wearing jeans, another sporting a blue worker’s singlet and shorts and a woman in skirt and heels. The quasi-classical religious setting has also been replaced by 20th century icons. These visual cues align with a Western philosophy that equates industrialisation with progress and change. However, for Smart, the subject has more to do with his love of the visual language of modernity, the creation of mood and the enigmatic quality of its central participants.
Jeffrey Smart developed a time-consuming practice of working that was a homage to past artists like Piero della Francesca but also allowed him to achieve his best and most considered results. Conversation Piece has been carefully and painstakingly created using a base comprising pencil and chalk, fine brushstrokes to apply the paint and rags to rub back or erase some elements. As part of that process, he also produced numerous pencil drawings and five painted studies of Conversation Piece, before settling on our final work. Each permutation introduced new variations and explored a range of colours, detailing and formal combinations. The final study comes closest in intent, though even here there are many subtle additions and refinements.
Conversation Piece, along with these five oil studies and a pencil sketch, was the principle work in a major exhibition of Smart’s recent creations held at Australian Galleries in 1998. The exhibition was reviewed by visiting English critic Giles Auty who alluded to the poetry and humanity of Smart’s paintings. He singled out Conversation Piece for its risk-taking and ‘playful use of primary colours’.4 Acquired by a private collector, this major painting by one of Australia’s most important artists is offered for the first time since. There is a timeless sensibility to Conversation Piece, but the picture tells a story that is seamlessly and irrevocably Smart and late 20th century.
1. Smart, J., in conversation with the author, Australian Galleries, 2008
2. Capon, E., Jeffrey Smart: Drawings and Figures 1942-2001, exhib. cat., Australian Galleries in association with Jeffrey Smart and Australian Art Publishing, 2001, p.198. See also my Jeffrey Smart: The Question of Portraiture, exh. cat., Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, 2009
3. Parking Lot Near Bologna 1992, Menzies, Australian & International Fine Art, Sydney, 23 June 2016, lot 33
4. Auty, G., ‘Slightly Surreal’, The Weekend Australian, 14-15 November 1998, p.23
Rodney James BA (Hons.) MA