(c) The Estate of Jeffrey Smart
29. JEFFREY SMART
Jeffrey Smart’s fascination with the urban motorway and road signs stem from his belief in them as potent signs of modern life. Painted after a period spent living in the busy metropolis Rome, First Study for The Arrow Carriers 1978, links past explorations of the theme that he painted in the late 1960s and early 1970s with new and ingenious ways to create perfect line, shape and audacious contrasts of colour. The painting is an eloquent essay on the beauty and synergies of the contemporary world as well as being an intricate and patiently considered study in geometry and structured form.
First Study for The Arrow Carriers depicts three figures walking along a stretch of bitumen: each carries a road sign on their back featuring a white arrow painted over a blue base. The beauty of the work lies in the way Smart orchestrates this otherwise unremarkable narrative, the sum of each of its parts is imbued with dynamism, poise, mystery and intrigue.
The use of strong accents of colour immediately sets the tone. Smart counterbalances orange-mandarin overalls against a bright blue – its natural complementary on the colour wheel. He then highlights this dynamic juxtaposition by placing the figures against a neutral background of softer greys and creams. The unusual combination provides a strong contrast and produces a stable anchor for the composition as a whole. The placement of cadmium brick rectangles works in a similar way. The rectangles are depicted in a sweeping line, creating the visual illusion of an unbroken arc. This technique enlivens the picture plane and leads the eye deep into the recessed space.
Repetition of form is an important element of Smart’s repertoire and pivotal to establishing the overall feel or mood. Pure circular forms, almost like protective roundels, are strategically placed in the painting and in a sense are its raison d'être. The rectangular space references an ancient system for composing harmonious proportions based on the Golden Mean. Yet the inexplicable direction of each arrow placed on the blue discs adds a note of playful whimsy and intrigue to this sense of order and repose.
First Study for The Arrow Carriers is one of two studies that work independently from but also complement a final and larger work. The importance of these two studies to Smart’s working methods cannot be understated. This is where he investigated and tested his ideas. The studies offer insights into the artist’s working methods and possess an immediacy and charm. They don’t suffer separation anxiety from the artist’s original impulse or idea.
The decision-making process can be seen in the comparison of the preliminary pen and wash sketch First Study for The Arrow Carriers. The sketch focuses on just two road-workers with the blue roundels. It is essentially a visual notation that sets up the relationship between the figures and how Smart would like them to be placed. Noticeable differences are also apparent in the alternating direction of the arrows. In the final work entitled The Arrow Carriers 1978, Smart continues to experiment with this aspect as well as with the picture’s compositional unity and depth of field.
First Study for The Arrow Carriers 1978, is a classic example of Jeffrey Smart’s ability to extract maximum effect from minimal means. Smart is a master of the consummately well-made picture. Every element in his paintings, every single mark, is intensely considered and fully resolved. The choice of a potential subject through to the successful realisation of a final work is underpinned by the insatiable desire to get things perfectly right.
Rodney James BA (Hons.) MA