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Whenever Jeffrey Smart has returned to Australia from Italy his visits have been something of a cultural phenomenon: devotees fall into line and arts editors suspend critical reason. Smart is fond of saying his paintings don’t mean anything profound, of quickly dismissing our overactive imaginations, as though we have unnecessarily taken his colour-by-numbers formalism for something deeper. Or do we already get his deadpan conundrums and expect there must be more?
Perhaps we should simply take him at his word. There are, of course, occasions when we shouldn’t trust an artist’s spoken introspection; many feel uncomfortable talking about their work and will offer awkward and forced snippets. But Smart, ever the dandy ringmaster of creative mystery, seems happy when he’s in town to indulge gatherings of aficionados and journalists, many of whom seek and indeed find the emptiness of the human condition in his imagery of stark urban isolation. Smart pulls them into line; he humours them, politely belittling them with his explanations that this colour, this shape creates a balance with that shape, those colours, in pursuit of the perfect composition.
If he’s right, and the paintings don’t mean much, is he playing some kind of Wildean or Whistler-like gag? It seems not. Smart’s visual one-liners appear to be an argument for sameness – he’s certainly good at it. Those paintings with gloomy skies hold all the drama of an airport novel’s cover, a genre that knows its market. He is happy for his work to be used to illustrate the failure of current-day art schools and undisciplined youthful endeavour. He studied with Fernand Léger (1881–1955) and thinks the day will come when his teacher will be more highly regarded than Picasso. Indeed, he decries style-changing Picasso as a destabilising influence for younger artists with a propensity to experiment.
The primacy of drawing: that’s something Smart would agree with. If you’re a realist, representation is important. There are good drawings by Smart and they’re mostly from the 1940s and ’50s. The later pencil-of-darkness works with their scratchy forms seem consumed by the frustration of an architect with design block. In their unrelenting and laboured repetitiveness, the lines suggest the artist’s lack of desire to imagine anything other than what he’s done before – a civic realism devoid of any sense of human uneasiness or illusory anxiety.
There’s no painterly drawing, nor painting that seeks to emphasise the drawn form: everything seems utterly predestined, as though the lot might be gridded up and handed to studio assistants for infilling. Smart’s mid-career and mature paintings don’t excite thinking or wonderment; their plastic surfaces seem devoid of any personal touch. The familiar and tedious sweep of his sable brush, the unvarying bend of grass in a non-existent wind: why would you want to paint each grass stalk if most are going to look the same? These are mere grass carpets on which figures are placed. The figures themselves appear as bored models. Isn’t the point of realism to allow us to see the subtleties, the syntax, and to intensify our perception and experience?
Smart says he only paints what interests and excites him, that long periods elapse before the ideas crystallise and fully form. But this colour, that shape – signs, arrows, road lines – it’s obvious and stiff, like a new realist academician going through his paces.
Smart’s distinctive style formed in the 1960s when his realism became sharper, and the contrast of pictorial elements more accentuated. Although his works of the 1940s and ’50s seem much more complex and genuine through their use of texture, half-tones and colourful incidents, they never had the sophistication of the paintings of a much less celebrated artist, Eric Thake (1904–82). Thake’s paintings, including his surrealist-like imagery as a war artist, reveal a keen and inventive eye and distinctive imagination. Take Archaeopteryx, 1941 (Art Gallery NSW) and Brownout, 1942 (National Gallery of Australia): the latter is a masterpiece of formal design and menacing ambience.
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. Predictable colours that jump out from inky half-tones or variations in beige look more like a languid routine at work where any sense of invention dissipates as he reaches into his formalist box of tricks. The figures just exist – collaged – without imparting any sense that they’re playing out some larger human schema.
There are times when it seems there is a game being played – some subtle cheek, perhaps. The studies, for example, never seem to lead into the work but, oddly, look like incidents after the fact. These vignettes are stylistic affectations, right down to the deliberately sketchy borders, which have been painted to mark them as studies, to suggest a certain pause before the artist abandons them and moves on to bigger things: Old Master pretentiousness, a nod to the greatness of others.
While Smart enjoys attention, his mordacity is legendary. He has described Sidney Nolan as a “bogus” painter, “an exponent who just wanted to make some money”, and has been no less disparaging of John Brack and Fred Williams. Yet Brack, Nolan and Williams shaped the way we see Australia. They represent both a sophisticated and vernacular iconography that has and will endure. Is it possible to think of these three ever slipping from any account of Australian art in the second half of the twentieth century?
And what about Smart, then? His Cahill Expressway, 1962 (National Gallery of Victoria) is well known. It’s also a marker of where his descent began. If Smart moved abroad to further his career, nothing came of it. He has had solo exhibitions in London and Rome, but only in Australia have people paid attention to him.
That Smart is well known but unimportant is precisely the problem with the Australian canon. It’s too often subject to uncritical esteem. Striking but clunky compositions became Smart’s mainstay. Take his large commission, Container Train in Landscape, 1983–84, in the Victorian Arts Centre. It’s the kind of arrangement that might be used as a lesson to aspire to something more inventive, something less patently prefabricated.
I think, too, of cheesy iconographic nationalism and later works by Albert Tucker, his gnarled explorers’ heads being attacked by parrots. Of course, no amount of revisionist or scholarly reinterpretation is likely to quickly shift public perception. To dissent is rather like joining a queue to kick Skippy. But it is important to say these things because there are many Australian artists – great artists – who reject pomposity and pretention, who have remained ignored.
‘Master of Stillness: Jeffrey Smart paintings 1940–2011’ opens at Adelaide’s Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art on 11 October.