Over the years I’ve met two distinct types of person born and raised in Adelaide. The first believe Adelaide is the finest city on earth and could not imagine living anywhere else. The second claim to have never been there in their lives.
Although he is not an out-and-out Adelaide denier, for as long as I’ve known Jeffrey Smart he has always inclined to the latter position. In this he is very similar to the novelist, Murray Bail, another reluctant scion of the southern capital.
For both men, aside from their dislike of Adelaide’s inveterate sense of moral superiority, there is something too cut-and-dried about their Heimat. In Holden’s Performance (1987) Bail describes the city as “laid out along the lines of a timetable. There were no hairpins or doglegs, no French curves or crescents; diagonals were few and far between.” In the author’s estimation, these streets helped form a culture of plain thinking, nasal pedanticism, Methodism, lawn manicure and precision hedge-cutting.
In his catalogue essay for Master of Stillness: Jeffrey Smart Paintings 1940-2011, curator, Barry Pearce, hints at the influence of Adelaide’s urban geometry on the artist’s development. All those straight lines, that life-long fascination with perspective and the Golden Mean – was it inculcated in Smart during his formative years, as he made his way around that all-pervasive grid? As the title of his autobiography suggests, Smart saw himself as ‘not quite straight’ in a city of squares.
A more specific reason for Smart’s disenchantment with Adelaide was the promise of a large survey exhibition to be held at the Art Gallery of South Australia in the early 1980s that never materialised. The show was rescued at the last moment by the Art Gallery of NSW, which would also host a Smart retrospective in 1999. Both exhibitions proved to be massive crowd-pullers, testifying to the artist’s popularity with the general public.
That AGNSW retrospective left much to be desired, omitting many of Smart’s best works, but it remains the most comprehensive survey we have seen. There has always been room for another show that was not necessarily bigger than the retrospective, but selected with greater acumen.
Barry Pearce has undertaken this task for a collaborative exhibition at the Samstag Museum of Art and Carrick Hill. Master of Stillness is Adelaide’s way of settling accounts with a famous son who has spent almost fifty years in Italy.
At the age of 91, Smart’s health does not permit a return visit to Australia, but he has professed himself “deeply moved” by this tribute. It’s a shame he won’t be seeing the show, because this compact selection of 68 works spread out over two venues makes a compelling case for his significance.
Unlike contemporaries such as Nolan, Boyd and Tucker, Smart has never dabbled in recognisable Australian ‘icons’. The motifs that recur in his work – the concrete buildings, highways, signs, fences, and so on, are to be found in all parts of the world. If one can identify any particular location it is Italy rather than Australia. His imagery is drawn from the present day, but painted in a style that owes a debt to Renaissance masters such as Piero della Francesca, and moderns such as Balthus and Hopper.
The special pleasure of this exhibition is that it allows us to view a cross-section of Smart’s works from the period 1940-1951, before he left Adelaide. It is entirely appropriate that these pieces be displayed at Carrick Hill, the faux-Jacobean manor owned by Ursula and Bill Hayward, enlightened collectors of Australian, British and European art. As a young man, Smart was a frequent visitor to the Hayward home, where he was able to see pictures by artists such as Vuillard, Gauguin, Stanley Spencer and Augustus John.
Perhaps the ideal way to approach this shared exhibition would be to visit Carrick Hill first and sample the freshness of Smart’s early works. Pictures such as Angaston (1941) and Wet Street (1943) are more expressive than anything he would paint in later life. A view of Port Adelaide Railway Station (1944) has a pale, sooty surface, in marked contrast to the vivid colour schemes of the mature canvases; while Sunday Morning Service (1945) has a directness that seems entirely out-of-character with his predilection for painstaking, careful composition.
In the 1940s the young artist exhibited as “Jeff Smart”, a tag that now sounds hilarious. His metaphysical predilections were already in place, in pictures that made country towns look as mysterious as a streetscape by De Chirico. If anything, the drama is slightly overdone, using devices such as an abandoned pram or a stormy sky to enhance the atmosphere of niggling unease.
By the time he left Adelaide Smart had mastered the art of making works that resemble scenes from imaginary movies, with each painting being a fragment of a larger story that teases the viewer’s imagination. This is the case with celebrated paintings such as Cahill Expressway (1962) and Factory and Staff, Erewhyna (1974), but also with many less prominent pictures.
There is a theatricality to these works that sets Smart apart from the avant-garde movements of the 1960s and 70s, which were dominated by forms of abstraction. While the Colour Field and Hard-Edge painters avoided any sense of theatre, Smart actively embraced this quality. At the same time, when asked what a painting was ‘about’, he would always give a purely formal explanation: a figure was needed to provide a sense of scale; a certain colour was necessary for the composition.
This may be the case with his largest work, Container Train in Landscape (1983-84), which has a strongly decorative element, but with most paintings it is both true and misleading. In a work such as Approach to a City II (1968-69), a man seems to be supporting an elderly woman as they walk along a narrow footpath next to a vast, empty freeway. There is an obvious sense of pathos in this scene, a feeling of human frailty alongside the impersonal structures of the metropolis.
In The Traveller (1973), a man stands between two buses, suspended in limbo between point of departure and destination. It is an image that inevitably conjures up thoughts of the restless mobility that is one of the defining features of modernity.
Even the Portrait of Clive James (1991-92), with its tiny likeness of the writer poised above a gigantic yellow, corrugated fence, is an oblique comment on the nature of fame. The figure, placed in a crucial point in the composition, is the most important element in the work but a mere dot compared to the fence that occupies almost three quarters of the canvas. Smart appears to be saying that what we know about a person, even one as famous as Clive James, is as nothing compared to what we don’t know. We’ll never see everything that lies behind the fence – for which we may be duly thankful.
The Portrait of Clive James employs a favourite Smart device – eliminating the middle ground, leaving only a distant backdrop and a kind of barrier across the front of the picture. The same feature is found in Near Knossos (1973) and The Corrugated Giaconda (1976).
There is a persistent strain of secrecy that runs through Smart’s work, from the discreet homoerotic images of bathers and bathing pavilions painted in the early 1960s, to the idea of putting the writer, David Malouf, into workmen’s overalls. Then there’s the figure hiding behind a copy of The Age, in Morning, Yarragon Siding (1983-84), which we assume is a self-portrait. Smart’s pictures are full of games and private jokes, but each gag also adds another dimension to the work.
Last year Smart announced he was giving up painting, but came out of self-imposed retirement to create Labyrinth (2011), which is being exhibited for the first time at the Samstag Museum. In the middle of a stony maze stretching as far as the eye can see, we find a portrait of H.G.Wells, author of novels such as The Time Machine and The Invisible Man. We would never know this unless Smart told us, but it adds another dimension to the work.
We might see this retrospective as a kind of time machine, propelling us back to the earliest phase of Smart’s career. The labyrinth, invented by Daedalus as a home for the Minotaur, is an appropriate metaphor for an artist’s life, which can be one long process of getting lost and starting anew. There is also a profound, poetic justice in a painter’s final picture returning to the city of his birth. If this is Smart’s grand finale it is a farewell that deserves to be remembered.
Master of Stillness: Jeffrey Smart paintings 1940-2011: Samstag Museum of Art & Carrick Hill, Adelaide, October 12 – December 14, 2012
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, November 10, 2012