Our second nature

Leading writer David Malouf was guest curator of a recent exhibition at the University of the art of leading Australian artist Jeffrey Smart. He shares his intimate knowledge of Smart’s work.
Image of David Malouf

Jeffrey Smart is a supremely self conscious artist. His output is by comparison small – he regularly destroyed paintings he felt were not up to the mark; as late as 1996 he speaks of himself as “a painter who feels the constraints caused by lack of ability”. None of this is unusual. Like most artists he makes choices that take account, in a clear headed self critical way, of his strengths, which are also of course his weaknesses. This exhibition, within its modest limits, attempts to track those choices. Centering on what seems to me to be Smart’s richest and most inventive period, 1967–87, the exhibition is book ended with two paintings from 1947 when he was in his mid 20s, and Labyrinth (2011), his last painting, which he embarked upon at age 90, in full knowledge that it was to be his last.

Cape Dombey and Vacant Allotment, Woolloomooloo (both 1947) already present us with elements of the visual language that would occupy him over the whole of his painting life. The obelisk in the first reappears 20 years later, as we see here, in The Steps (1968/69) and in many other pictures. The windowless square tower of Vacant Allotment and its glowing rectangular fences form part of Smart’s repertoire of geometrical forms – cubes, squares, rectangles, circles and part circles, curves, quadrants and ellipses – for the next six decades.

Vacant Allotment stands out as an early masterpiece, but of a ‘painterly’ career that Smart chose not to pursue. When he moved to Sydney in 1952, after two years overseas in which he studied briefly in Paris and made his first overwhelming discovery of Italy, he gave up painting for a time while he reassessed what sort of painter he might be. When he came back to it in the middle 1950s, he abandoned the palette knife and what he calls rather dismissively “the swirling, loaded brush”, for something cooler and more detached.

As early as Cahill Expressway (1962, collection National Gallery of Victoria), Smart discovered the poetry of highways, perhaps from what he had seen the beginnings of in Italy in the early ’50s. But it was when he settled in Italy in the following year that the landscape of passage and destination emerged as a preoccupation that would make the world Smart worked in uniquely his own.

The Italian autostrada system constitutes an enclosed, nationwide phenomenon from which Italians, with their flair for visual drama and their highly developed social sense, have created a complete world, with its own culture of monumental forms and its own coherent mythology and language: so much part of the contemporary Italian scene that they simply take it as given.

Jeffrey Smart, with an outsider’s eye for the particular, the exotic, reads it metaphysically: in flyovers, bridges, the baroque curve of entrances and exits; in glimpses from far off and in passing, towers of wrecked cars, piles of brightly coloured oil barrels, stacked containers, abandoned farmhouses; in men in overalls at maintenance work and prostitutes waiting for truck drivers at turn offs.

In these figures he sees images of a secular industrial poetry, a world not of nature but of our second nature, objects and occasions that, within the formal order of a style of painting that is an extension as he sees it, in contemporary form, of the Central Italian schools of the Cinquecento, are the icons – real, functionally purposeful, sometimes brutal, but also transcendentally mysterious – of what beauty and even grandeur might be in a fast moving, efficient, but also isolating and impersonal world.

The vision, which comes one guesses in a brief glimpse, is inward and spontaneous, but the process Smart follows in getting it onto the canvas is painstakingly slow. The challenge is to keep the image fresh.

Too little or too much ‘surprise’ and the image can seem forced, confected. A compositional problem too obviously set, and the solution, however elegant, will look like mere calculation or cleverness. Then there is the difficulty, for all artists who work as Smart did over an extended lifetime, of what Henry James calls “keeping it up”. Of avoiding repetition or the lapse into formula; into self imitation, self parody.

How well an artist survives all this determines how high a place we accord him in a shaky pantheon.

The subject of Smart’s last painting, Labyrinth, is very appropriately the directional problem of that most artificial of all road systems, the maze. Not the leafy maze of the formal garden but what looks like a roughstone maze that might be the remains of a classical ruin. Once more, Smart’s favourite imagery of the journey, of passage and destination, with at its centre, or rather at the cross hairs of the Golden Mean, the old time traveller himself, HG Wells. Typically, the image is as much literary or philosophical as visual, but instead of hard edged lines and primary colours there is a return here to the very personal presence of the artist’s hand; of individual brushstrokes as the paint goes on.

In every way Labyrinth is a final work that is managed and presented as a considered statement, about space, time, travelling, the human predicament; a demonstration of human fragility and endurance. Most of all, it is a work that preserves, to the very end, something of the painter’s objectivity, both about himself and about his art. His belief in the form itself as the message. His urbanity and wit.

The exhibition Jeffrey Smart 1921-2013: Recondita Armonia – Strange Harmonies of Contrast will be on display at the University Art Gallery from November 2013 to 7 March 2014.