The setting for this painting is the Italian port town of Syracuse (Siracusa) on the east coast of Sicily. Smart first visited Sicily in March 1964 with fellow Australian artist Justin O’Brien (1917-1996), whose work graces the cover of this auction catalogue (lot 26).1 Smart subsequently travelled through Sicily in April 1968 with another expatriate artist, Bryan Westwood (1930-2000). This was the same year that Smart moved to Rome; a time when his love of Italy and his penchant for industrial forms were beginning to take shape. Commenting on his own meticulous painting style and his new direction towards industrial landscapes at this time he said, ‘How wrong a jet or a modern motor car looks painted impressionistically!… Only very recently have artists again started to comment on their real surrounding.’2
The next nine years were spent travelling extensively and further refining his signature style. Author Barry Pearce cites 1976 as the moment after which Smart’s path was absolutely assured: ‘There was no more anguish… his painting was now looking after itself. All that remained was the unfolding of acclaim he deserved for sticking to his guns and changing the way so many people have seen and related to the modern world.’3 It is during this zenith that the present work was painted.
In early 1977, Smart and his partner Ermes de Zan took a road trip through Sicily, after which Smart produced three studies (the third of which is the present painting) and a final work depicting waiting shipping containers at Syracuse Harbour. All four works were then exhibited in his Australian Galleries show in March the following year. In reviewing this exhibition, art critic Ronald Millar commented that while lesser painters ‘simply catalogue the common place… [Smart] intensifies the real and makes it into revelation.’4 Mr. A.L. Abrahams purchased Third Study for Waiting Containers, Syracuse Harbour from that exhibition, and it has been privately held by the Abrahams family since. These studies indicate a typical working method for Smart, who would often start with quick sketches that were developed into more finished drawings, then comprehensive oil studies, followed by a finished painting. Due to Smart’s scrupulous process, the final work often differs only slightly from the oil studies, as is the case for Waiting Containers, Syracuse Harbour. As can be seen in Fig.1, the composition and palette are almost identical, with the difference being the corrugations on the shipping containers.
Smart returned to the subject of shipping containers at many points throughout his career, employing their bright colours and large-scale, tessellating forms. Container Train in Landscape 1984, which was commissioned for the Arts Centre Melbourne, and is currently hanging in their Fairfax Studio, spanning almost ten metres in length. As in these paintings, the containers in Third Study for Waiting Containers, Syracuse Harbour are an examination of geometry and structured form. Smart points to the beauty of our contemporary and industrialised world, using classical proportions to achieve a sense of repose and stillness. The softly painted grey sky becomes the ideal backdrop to juxtapose the brightly coloured containers and their strongly articulated forms.
1. Smart, J., Not Quite Straight, Heinemann, Melbourne, 1996, p.362
2. Smart, J., Art International, Rome, May 1968, vol.xii, no.5, quoted in Quartermaine, P., Jeffrey Smart, Gryphon Books, Melbourne, 1983, p.125
3. Pearce, B., Jeffrey Smart, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2005, p.186
4. Millar, R., ‘Urban Visions from Foreign Lands’, The Australian, 10 April 1978