One of two reasons we talk about Jeffrey Smart (1921-2013) is that he was one of the last of a famous generation of Australian artists born into a world of full modernism, far-flung from it though we were. Take Russell Drysdale (1912-1981); Albert Tucker (1914-1999); Donald Friend (1915-1989); Sidney Nolan (1917-1992); Arthur Boyd (1920-1999);  Joy Hester (1920-1960); John Perceval (1923-2000); Margaret Olley (1923-2011); Charles Blackman (1928-); John Olsen (1928-) …

And the other is that he was beloved of gallery directors and gallery goers. As Christopher Allen in The Australian so neatly put it:

“There are several jokes about abstraction in Smart’s painting, but the more important implication is that he can give the viewer everything that abstraction can — the colour fields, the flat surfaces and so on — but with all the meaning of the real world as well.”

I had some conversations about his legacy, some with artists, and the feeling was moot; the directors and punters may love him, but the cognoscenti are more ambivalent. In my positive notice of Smart’s valedictory survey at Tarrawarra in March:

“I mentioned the show to an artist the other day who is working on her PhD. She shocked me by asking how was Smart important to Australian art history. I may not be a big fan of Smart but his oeuvre is of a quality (surely) beyond dispute.”

But perhaps she intended her question to be stressed differently: well, he may be good, but is he important to our art? On the ABC Talking Heads in 2009, Smart mentioned “stillness”:

“And then [TS Eliot] talks about ‘the stillness of a work of art’. And that’s so crucial. And if you find that in a work of art, like Cezanne, it’s that perfect stillness. And I hope I get it sometimes in my own work.”

(Amusingly, the Fairfax obit regards Cezanne as a cubist! “Highlights included the former home of Cezanne, the cubist painter he greatly admired …”) In his autobiography, Not Quite Straight, Smart writes:

“Many of my paintings have their origin in a passing glance. Something I have seen catches my eye, and I cautiously rejoice because it might be the beginning of a painting. Sometimes it is impossible to stop … and it does happen that when I get back to the place, I wonder what on earth it could have been that enchanted me — it wasn’t there. Enchantment is the word for it.”

From the distilled selection in the “Master of Stillness” survey at Tarrawarra, Smart was consistent in approach and stuck to his guns through flat and conceptual times. His credo was like a lyric poet’s: to capture a moment and embed it in timeless stillness.

I’d say on those two criteria he succeeded. But whether he transmits the enchantment of the moment may be a matter of taste. An art writer of my acquaintance remarked that Smart’s “figures are wooden, and his surface dry. He could never produce an appealing finish. But his composition, imagery and colour are masterful.” I mostly agree: Smart’s figures are wooden; his surface is chalky, but I kind of like that; his imagery can be banal — that they are contrived is to say they are theatrical, which fits his bill; and I find his pop-primary colours a bit wearying, but they work well in individual pictures.

Alternately, Doug Hall, Australian commissioner at the Venice Biennale, wrote crushingly in The Monthly:

“But this colour, that shape — signs, arrows, road lines — it’s obvious and stiff, like a new realist academician going through his paces … The 1970s and ’80s saw Smart consolidate the contrived compositions with their polyurethane figures, as well as his use of colour: those raw primaries, the cadmiums. Smart is interested in colour and yet, at his most garish, he allows them to look as though they’ve been squeezed straight from the tube.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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