Jeffrey Smart: constructed world
By Hannah Hutchison, Art Gallery of NSW
Click on the profile to read more about Jeffrey Smart, his life and work
Jeffrey Smart’s conception of the urban landscape formed one of the most original bodies of work in Australian art. In a career that spanned seven decades, a geometry of apartment blocks, autostradas and reflective road signs became his signature. Smart forged an idiosyncratic realist style that captured the stillness and beauty of the industrialised world with metaphysical nuance and a refined clarity of vision.
Every Smart work is a construction. Jeffrey Smart: constructed world explores how Smart used the process of drawing and constant revision to construct his distinctive urban vision. He said of his practice: ‘...in the end my pictures are completely synthetic. I move things around – change the height of buildings, colours, shadows, light – to get the composition right’.
Smart’s carefully constructed paintings belie the effort of their creation. Classically trained, his process was laborious, slowly working out the composition of a painting through many drawings and studies. He believed that ‘great painting is based on good drawing. A poor draughtsman cannot be a great painter’.
The artworks brought together in Jeffrey Smart: constructed world reflect the different stages and places of Smart’s career, from his early years in Adelaide, through the 1950s and early 1960s in Sydney, to his later years in Italy. On display 11 May to 29 September 2019, they include highlights from a major gift of drawings donated by his long-term partner Ermes De Zan alongside well-known paintings from the collection.
Keswick siding is an early work Smart painted in Adelaide along the train tracks near Keswick Station. The thin washes of paint and textured impasto surface differ from the pristine surfaces of his mature works, but the painting reveals Smart’s early fascination for urban industrial landscapes and transport systems.
Its dramatic rendering of train tracks sweeping into the distance creates a dynamic composition and it displays pictorial elements that persisted throughout Smart’s career.
Smart’s geometrically constructed compositions were influenced by the cubist principles he learnt from Adelaide artist Dorrit Black during an informal lesson in the early 1940s. He later recalled: ‘She began with the geometric method for establishing the Golden Mean … This was a positive eye opener …’ The Golden Mean, a geometric ratio that helps to build an aesthetically pleasing composition, is a technique that Smart went on to use throughout his career.
Seated nude was influenced by this lesson and it is one of Smart’s most dynamic early works. While he never made any other cubist works, it demonstrated to him the necessity for structure and balance in composition and prepared him for lessons he would later receive at Fernand Léger’s school in Paris in 1949.
In this drawing we see Smart’s early fascination with architecture.
Renmark depicts a view of the Murray River. Such bucolic scenes were to disappear from Smart’s later works in favour of urban settings.
In 1948 Smart made an arduous journey to Europe via the United States by cargo ship. He studied under Fernand Léger at the Académie Montmartre in Paris and also visited Italy and England, seeking out the work of post impressionist French painter Paul Cézanne and 15th-century Italian Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca. During the winter of 1949 he and fellow artists Jacqueline Hick and Michael Shannon stayed together on the Italian island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples.
These drawings made during Smart’s time in Ischia offer an insight into a period when he didn’t make many ‘finished’ oil paintings. The portrait of Attilio, a young man he met on the island was made years later back in Australia.
Jeffrey Smart The surfers, Bondi 1963 On loan from Jacobs Douwe Egberts (Au) Pty Ltd
Returning from his trip to Europe in 1950, Smart won the Commonwealth Jubilee Open Art Competition and moved to Sydney the following year. Here he became an art critic for the Daily Telegraph and a host on the popular children’s radio program The Argonauts. In the 12 years Smart lived in Sydney, he made a number of works about the city’s most famous beach, Bondi. In identifying his subject, Smart departed from his usual practice, in which his compositions were amalgams unconnected to a specific location.
In The stilt race we see the introduction of Smart’s archetypal motifs – road signs and markings in the zebra crossing and the turning arrow. The urban setting combined with the two figures teetering on stilts – inspired by a photograph Smart had seen of an African tribe – makes for a work with a surrealist inflection.
The stilt race was one of two paintings selected for inclusion in the groundbreaking Recent Australian Painting exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1961. Buoyed by this international recognition of his work, by 1963 Smart felt he was ready to move to Italy permanently.
The idea for this painting grew during a visit to Australia. While driving around Sydney with fellow artist Michael Ramsden one Sunday morning, Ramsden suddenly stopped the car at Central Railway Station and ran off to buy the morning paper. Smart caught a glimpse of him running between hoardings constructed over an unfinished pedestrian tunnel under George Street. Struck by this vision in the morning light, Smart returned to this location early the following morning to make drawings and sketches, from which the final picture was painted when he returned to Italy.
Some of the studies included in this exhibition suggest a sense of spontaneity – a scribbled note for a painting, captured quickly or discovered by chance. Smart’s eye for opportunity was key to his process. For example, the idea for Central Station II was sparked by a scene he observed while sitting in a parked car near the Sydney train station.
The most prominent motifs of Smart’s later works are roadways and apartment blocks. When he first arrived in Rome, he lived near the EUR district. This area was characterised by a striking mix of Fascist era apartment blocks, architectural relics, hoardings, office buildings and open fields. Smart developed a fascination for the new cityscapes that swept through Italy as the postwar economic boom took hold, changing the visual landscape of the country. He also encountered Italy’s motorways – beautiful structures curving through the mountains with arresting traffic signage.
Truck and trailer approaching a city evokes a sense of urban alienation. Smart utilises colour, scale and uniform geometric shapes to portray the anonymity of a group of apartment buildings that span the horizon of this painting as a removalist truck approaches the urban centre.
Roads and transportation are at the heart of Smart’s world. Buses appear in many of his works including Bus terminus in which painted lines and traffic cones lead us to the row of parked vehicles. The lines of the road markings curving off into the distance echo the construction of earlier works such as Keswick siding 1945, with locomotive travel replaced here by buses on modern freeways. Smart once said of his subjects:
Perhaps I’m trying to help people see the beauty in a gas tank, a road divider, a yellow truck. I paint buildings, factories, freeways, satellite dishes, because I like the definite forms and clean shapes.
Many of Smart’s paintings can be traced back to the spontaneous sketches that were an indispensable part of his practice. The initial sketchy lines of annotated working studies progress into a series of drawings, then oil studies and finally a finished painting.
Some of these drawings are studies for specific paintings such as Truck and trailer approaching a city 1973 while others Smart reused more than once. For example, he said of the drawing Study for ‘The city bus station’: This drawing of the back of a bus has been useful many times. Not as easy as one would think to find a bus depot and have the light in the required direction.
During a visit to the Louvre in Christmas of 1993 Smart noticed a long temporary wooden screen in an empty gallery and thought the geometry, light and shadows of the space would make a wonderful picture.
Back in his Tuscan studio he worked up studies of the Louvre scene that included two figures walking through the space, but he decided he needed a static figure to anchor the composition. ‘I thought if I’ve got to have a static figure, it may as well be a portrait of someone and then I thought of Margaret,’ he stated. Smart commissioned Australian photographer Robert Walker to photograph Olley and from these photos and his initial sketches, he created this painting.
Olley later said of this work, ‘I’m more at home in the Louvre than standing on one of Jeffrey’s freeways or empty car parks’.
After deciding Margaret Olley would be the subject of his Louvre painting, Smart wrote to her in January 1994:
Dearest Margaret, I’ve been working on some drawings I did in the Louvre … Now I’ve got a lady there, a lady with a largish bag which gives me a better shape. Today, this afternoon, the nice lady started to resemble YOU and I thought why not give it a go which I’m going to do – you won’t mind, I hope.
Through these studies we can see how Smart develops his composition, perspective and proportion. He explained: Once I get it onto [the final canvas] I can just proceed with the painting of it. This is the idea of the study to decide where I’m establishing the shapes.
Smart’s Matisse at Ashford is perhaps the finest work of his later years. Like many of his paintings, it found its origin in a passing glance while he was sitting on a train in England. He recalled:
…while the train paused at Ashford Station, just after the tunnel, I was given the most heavenly theme … billboards, which … have one of Matisse’s spiritually barren motifs on them.
He was referring to banners advertising a Matisse exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, featuring one of Matisse’s famous blue cut-out nudes. Before the train moved off, Smart quickly made sketches on the endpapers of a novel. The work was further developed in his studio over the ensuing months through a succession of studies.
Sometimes Smart’s work was built upon an idea or a memory of something viewed long ago. A jungle gym first appeared in the background of a 1989 painting The new school, and a sketchbook from the same year. This motif remained in Smart’s mind and in late 1997 he decided to paint a children’s playground, featuring a jungle gym as the central subject. Smart spent time seeking a jungle gym around Arezzo to draw but was unable to find any. He contacted his archivist Stephen Rogers in Australia, but he was also unable to find one. Smart then decided to commission a computer-generated image instead.
Smart was meticulous in his requirements, asking that the scene of the structure be set on 13 October 1997 at 4.30pm at 43 degrees latitude with the viewer standing three meters away from the structure. When he received the finished computer generated drawing, he was delighted and worked up the painting through a series of studies.
This work is an excellent example of how Smart constructed an image of a scene that didn’t exist, utilising technology to achieve his perfect vision.
In this portrait of Australian expatriate author and journalist Clive James, the sitter is reduced to a tiny blip on the horizon, dwarfed by skyscrapers and a yellow corrugated iron fence.
The development of this work spanned many studies and versions. Smart began by using a stand-in model to place his subject in an urban setting resembling a carpark, and he made some detailed head studies to establish facial features.
After making several studies of James, Smart decided the composition wasn’t working and so scrapped the in-progress work in favour of a new scene featuring a yellow fence he had viewed from a train in Tokyo. Smart placed James into the Japanese setting, diminutive in scale and set back far behind the fence. As in all of Smart’s works featuring figures, James’ tiny form in this sizeable painting acts as a measure of scale.
This is a sketch of a scene glanced from the window of a train in Tokyo. It eventually developed into Portrait of Clive James.
Smart often had friends, his partner or his housekeeper stand in as models for the figures he would go on to use in paintings.
The truth is I put figures in mainly for scale, the way Le Corbusier always drew a figure beside his buildings.
This drawing is a study for the painting Portrait in the art museum 1965, in which Smart’s partner at the time, Ian Bent, posed as the figure for the work. In the final painting Smart substituted the more matronly figure of Guiseppina, his housekeeper.
Jeffrey Smart Portrait in the art museum 1965 private collection, Sydney
Smart likely began this painting while visiting his friends, Australian artists Paul Haefliger and Jean Bellette at their property in Soller, Mallorca. The figure featured in this work is based on Guiseppina, the housekeeper of the place Smart rented there. Smart selected this painting for the cover of his 1966 exhibition at South Yarra Gallery in Melbourne. Despite his esteem for this painting it didn’t sell. He made significant alterations to it in hope that it would encourage a buyer, including changing the woman’s dress from black to green, covering her shoulders and repainting the green wall in the lower section of the work.
This drawing of Guiseppina, Smart's housekeeper, is a study for the painting Portrait in the art museum 1965.