Jeffrey Smart has often been referred to as one of Australia's most important painters. I recently went to see an exhibition of Jeffrey Smart's paintings at the very accessible TarraWarra Museum of Art in the Yarra Valley, near Healesville in Victoria. The exhibition was Master of Stillness: Jeffrey Smart paintings 1940-2011. It was an opportunity to see a collection of over forty of his paintings on loan from around galleries in Australia and overseas.
Jeffrey Smart is famous for his paintings of urban landscapes that include often overlooked subject matter. Industrial wastelands, concrete streetscapes, and block-like architecture dominate his paintings. When people do appear, they are included
mainly for scale. Jeffrey Smart uses his architectural training to add geometry and symmetry to his paintings. He once said
...I love natural beauty, but I am not moved by it...to me composition is everything...
The paintings in the exhibition began with his early work in Adelaide where he was born in 1921. The first paintings of buildings, people and landscapes in the 1940s are very different to the ones of later years. It was interesting to see how they changed. Recently deceased, Jeffrey Smart lived in Italy where he had longed to live from a young age and had done so for over 50 years.
A narrative painter and poet
People have called Jeffrey Smart a narrative painter and a poet. He has admitted that sometimes he has
led people astray by making up stories...about the pictures afterwards. Someone has written a book of stories, with their interpretation of his paintings. For me, the composition of each of his paintings just begs for a story.
Jeffrey Smart has said that he leaves the interpretation of his works up to the individual viewer. He does explain though, that he is
trying to paint the real world that he lives in. He has painted traffic signs, containers, warehouses, fences, control towers, rooftops, concrete silos and transmitters. I enjoy his use of bold bright colours and clean lines.
His painting Holiday, from 1971 initially, looks nothing like a holiday to me, with its high-rise apartment block and tiny balconies. One person is sitting on one balcony with their face and arms in the sun. For this person, though, it could well be a holiday.
Art Gallery in Shopping Arcade, from 1985, looks nothing like an art gallery either. It is the inside of a modern shopping arcade, with a shiny lino floor full of reflections, with everything closed and display windows covered. One classical natural landscape picture is hanging in a window, in front of a yellow sheet. There is a sign on the panel next to it indicating an art gallery. The typical accepted credit card stickers are also on the same blocked glass panel. We are led to suppose this is, or was, an art gallery.
In Portrait of Clive James of 1991-92, most of the painting is of a corrugated iron fence, with high-rise buildings occupying a small space up on one side. There is the upper body of a man standing on concrete blocks towards the middle. It is so tiny in the painting, but yes, it does look like Clive James.
Jeffrey Smart painted his last painting in 2011 and called it Labyrinth. At 90 years of age, he was frail and said he was retiring from painting. Also in 2011, the University of South Australia awarded him an honorary doctorate in art. Jeffrey Smart passed away on June 21st this year in his beloved Italy.
I am so pleased that I have been to see this excellent collection of his works. He will be remembered as one of the great Australian painters of our time.