(c) The Estate of Jeffrey Smart
44. JEFFREY SMART
Dampier III, painted in 1967, belongs to the early part of Jeffrey Smart’s maturity as an artist and the start of a long period of important and successful paintings. In many respects, the painting illustrates the artist’s position at this point in time as it draws together the various skeins of his life and art. It also embodies many of the characteristics and techniques he was to use in the coming years.
His 1962 painting, Cahill Expressway, was already a confirmed favourite at the National Gallery of Victoria, and Smart was now a regular participant in major museum surveys of Australian art, both in Australia and overseas. His work was the subject of good reviews and entered the most important private collections of the time. He was able to settle permanently in Italy and plan his life with a level of financial security. A successful show in Rome at Galleria Ottantotto, in April 1965 provided funds for travel. A visit to Paris in May was followed by a trip to Spain,
... and then we came to roost, in June, at Soller in Majorca. The reason for this was that Paul Haefliger and Jean Bellette had bought a property there, and Jean found us a farmhouse to rent. Brett and Wendy Whiteley were at Deya, nearby, as well as my Roman friends Elaine and William Broadhead. It was also inexpensive and I could make the money from the show spin out. I was working for a show at the Macquarie Galleries in October, and Ian was working well. ... We were back in Rome in September after a good summer of work and being with old friends like the Haefligers. It was that summer of 1965, that I realised that at last my painting was getting somewhere.1
Smart was sufficiently well thought of to be considered for a major painting commission being proposed by the multinational mining company, RioTinto Zinc. It was while in Majorca that Smart had met the head of the company, Sir Val Duncan, and agreed to go to the remote Western Australian Pilbara region to see Mount Tom Price and the coastal town of Port Dampier to do some paintings which would be inspired by the company’s new projects there.
I went in September 1966 and painted two pictures, both of them disasters. I think I tried too hard. The Rocks at Dampier suggested several paintings later on: perhaps I needed time to digest it all because those later paintings were not so bad. They made the core of a …very successful first exhibition in London.2
The ‘not so bad’ Dampier III was in fact the best known of a group of several compositions on this theme, which went on to be exhibited at The Redfern Galleries, in London in February 1967, Macquarie Galleries in Sydney in May 1967 and the South Yarra Galleries in Melbourne in June 1968.
Smart was getting into the habit of developing his compositions in stages, using several versions, and building up the image with preparatory drawings and studies in watercolour and gouache. The best of these could be retained for inclusion in his exhibitions. This practice had the benefit of allowing the artist to refer to earlier ideas and make improvements by experimentation. It also presented his audience with an insight into his creative process and thinking.
Commentary on Smart’s work often draws attention to his keen sense of the absurd.3 Smart was not quite a Surrealist, and has been referred to as a Magic Realist. The distinction lies in the level of plausibility: Magic Realist paintings employ an air of disquiet, or of magic, while not stepping over a line of what might be deemed to be physically plausible. Surrealism employs variations and deliberate distortions in space, time, abstraction and representation. The two movements are closely aligned by the use of absurd imagery, and often this might take the form of bizarre juxtapositions of concepts. A portrait of Picasso (1881-1973, Spanish) seated on a manmade breakwater in remotest Western Australia would qualify. Smart’s work invites but often defies interpretation. The association might be purely a visual one. In the case of the present painting, the conical hat might simply have suited a formal purpose by relating to the similar shape of navigational marker behind him.
The subject (Picasso) is wearing a Pierrot costume. Pierrot was a member of the Commedia dell’ Arte, a stock character from the famous acting troupe that toured Europe from the seventeenth century, often with biting political or social commentary underlying the entertainment. The best known representation of Pierrot was painted in 1718 by Watteau (1684-1721, French). Known as Gilles, it is a landmark work now hanging in the Louvre and a great monument of French art. Dampier III has all the appearance of being a painting of Picasso who has lost his way home after a fancy dress ball. The navigational markers and flags represent a further twist. They are on the one hand festive, and on the other, very functional and purposeful. Smart makes them into art. While the background or genesis of the painting lay in a chance meeting in Majorca, the resulting painting leaves no clues to this. Typically, Smart’s paintings raise more questions than they answer.
It was not unusual for example, for Smart to devote a considerable amount of his effort to the most unprepossessing part of a composition. Here rocks are painted with the highest levels of attention to their physicality. This should not be confused with naturalism, or realism. Smart is not really interested in being a photorealist. The forms of the rocks, the contrast of the shadows and light, however are, like in many of Smart’s best paintings, critical to the balance and dynamic of the painting, even if they, as a jumble of rocks, represent a low value intrinsically.
Dampier is an unlikely setting for a portrait of Picasso as Pierrot. In doing so Smart presents a polarity which is in fact a puzzle, which he then disarms by the use of his understated and somewhat deadpan brushwork. This is the essence of Smart: highly sophisticated concepts infused with erudite references, rendered mundane. The power of his paintings to intrigue is a product of the discrete tension that arises from this balancing act. What on earth is Picasso doing in Dampier? How does this association work for the artist and how does it work for a viewer?
These blasé associations became an integral part of Smart’s modus. His The Bicycle Race (Death of Morandi) painted in 1966, for example bears no literal reference to the famously understated Italian Still-Life painter, and nor does The Guiding Spheres I (Homage to Cézanne) of 1979-80 provide any obvious reference to the artist to whom it is dedicated. All of these paintings do, however, contribute to our understanding of Smart’s work because by these references the individual paintings gain a conceptual dimension they might not otherwise enjoy, and they provide us with an insight into how Smart sees himself in relation to the history of art.
Portraiture remained a lifelong interest for Smart. Margaret Olley in the Louvre Museum, (1994-95) and the various celebrated portraits of David Malouf (1980), Germaine Greer (1984), and Clive James (1991-92) are amongst his best known and best loved paintings. Smart’s sitters must have become accustomed to being relegated from the centre of attention to the opposite. Clive James, his tiny torso barely recognisable, is reduced to the position of being a functional pivot point in the compositional drama going on around him.
Dampier III was included in the comprehensive Jeffrey Smart Retrospective and exhibition catalogue of 1999 - 2000 that confirmed him as one of the best loved artists of his generation.
The author would like to thank the following for their help in preparing this catalogue entry: Caroline Purves, Stuart Purves and Stephen Rogers.
1 quoted from Smart, J. Not Quite Straight, a memoir, Vintage, Sydney, 2008, p.394
3 Macdonald, J. Jeffrey Smart, Paintings of the 70s and 80s, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1990, p.34
Timothy Abdallah BA