Denise M Taylor

Writing Consultant I Editor I Proofreader I Teacher

The backdrop of rolling hills and vineyards around Healesville (about a one hour drive east of Melbourne) befits the exhibition, ‘Master of Stillness: Jeffrey Smart paintings 1940–2011’, which is currently showing at the TarraWarra Museum of Art (twma.com.au).  The rural landscape not only resembles the Tuscan hills around Arezzo where Jeffrey Smart has lived in his 18th century house since 1971 (he will be 92 in July), but acts as a foil to the themes and motifs of his paintings: modern urban landscapes and industrial wastelands, often with the inclusion of one or two figures and a brooding, threatening sky. There is an eerie stillness in Smart’s exacting compositions—they resonate with a silence, evoking a feeling of human detachment from modern life and nature—like frozen scenes from a film.  Do you find yourself wondering what will happen next?

Frank, ‘Jeffrey’, Edson Smart (Adelaide-born and Italy-based) has had a long and successful career that blossomed during the post-war Modernist movement in Sydney in the 1950s and early ’60s, before he relocated to Italy.  This touring exhibition of Smart’s paintings (1940-2011) has its roots in the Samstag Museum of Art in Adelaide and is curated by Smart’s friend and professional associate, Barry Pearce (who is giving a lecture on the exhibition at TarraWarra on 10 February at 4pm).  The TarraWarra gallery is situated on a hill and its large windows frame wonderful views of the surrounding countryside. The day was cool when I arrived; soft clouds scudded across a blue sky.  Within the gallery, natural light is enhanced by the white walls of the interconnecting rooms. The visitor benefits from a chronological journey through Smart’s life, beginning with his development as an artist in South Australia, through to his last painting in Italy. A video provides an excellent 27 minute overview of his life and work.

The people in Smart’s paintings are placed in interesting, often puzzling, positions and poses—alienated or vulnerable in an urban environment.  Deep shadows and dark skies carry some connotation of threat or anxiety (refer to the featured image: ‘The Construction Fence’, 1978, © TarraWarra Museum of Art collection). The geometric sensibility and hard edges of the compositions (some call Smart’s style Precisionist) generate a feeling of stillness devoid of noise, as if an apocalyptic occurrence is about to happen—almost cinematic, as if viewed through a camera lens. I have read that Smart insists that his pictures contain no intended narrative or psychological insight. However, when I was gazing at Smart’s paintings with my two companions, similar questions and comments arose between the three of us.  We were looking for hidden stories, a reason why Smart often includes lost-looking souls amongst factories, construction sites and wharves brimming with containers, or standing by empty roads …

“Doesn’t that deserted freeway and that apartment block give you an eerie feeling that humans have been suddenly beamed up to Mars?”

“Why is author David Malouf wearing workmen’s overalls and holding that hose which is curling around towards us?”

“I wonder why that young girl in the pink dress is running? Those dark clouds look menacing and perhaps warn of an approaching doom.  Oh? Doom for her, or for civilisation?”

Our imagination was engaged as we faced each painting. I agree with Smart when he says: “You cannot talk about art that is contemplative; it’s too intense to be expressed in words”. (I have written about words being inadequate when standing before great art in ‘Bedazzled by beauty’). Yet I get the feeling that Smart is also having fun with us by drawing us into a secretive narrative.

Smart sees beauty in the clean lines and shapes of modern structures. Accordingly, as viewers of Smart’s paintings, should we be rethinking our responses to industrial sites and streetscapes as ugly or soulless? Smart may be commenting on the dehumanising of modern architecture and urban planning, yet I can appreciate a ‘kind of’ beauty in the geometry and clear colours of his compositions: yellow gas pipes, pink and blue crates, orange blocks of flats, emerald green construction fences, a red satellite dish, a black winding bitumen road with yellow stripes, and of course, those amazing skies—sometimes purple, sometimes bright blue.  Colours energise the subject and combine harmoniously with the definitive patterns created by geometry.

Jeffrey Smart, 'Cahill Expressway', 1962, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne ©

Jeffrey Smart, ‘Cahill Expressway’, 1962, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Much has been written about the play of darkness and light in Smart’s urban landscapes. A shadow intruding into the picture suggests the presence of an invisible threat, whereas light, as Pearce ponders, is “the closest thing we have to an experience of eternity”.  Smart’s famous, more tonal, ‘Cahill Expressway’ (1962), focuses on the man in a blue suit on the edge of the road, and the sunlit curved wall which enters the dark void of the tunnel under the bridge. The sculpted stone figures on the monument above seem to be pointing ‘the way’—a tongue-in-cheek, modernist reference to Greek and Roman statues?  Or perhaps a more sinister dig at propaganda statues of recent times? Differing shapes and colour tones, combined with the shift between light and shadow, help capture a contemplative ‘stillness’ (or a frozen frame) in most of Smart’s compositions.

Barry Pearce believes that Jeffrey Smart’s preoccupation with time and stillness, and the “eternal contradiction of those two elements” within Smart’s urban landscape vision, is finally resolved in the artist’s last painting, ‘Labyrinth’, completed just before his retirement in 2011. In this painting we see a seemingly never-ending maze turned to stone, with a hatted H.G. Wells, prophet of the future, standing in the centre (he wrote the sci-fi classics, The Time Machine in 1895 and The War of the Worlds in 1898). Wells is bathed in light under a dark, brooding sky; time is ‘standing still’ as he decides which way to go.  Perhaps Smart is alluding to the times he has stopped throughout his life to make choices which would invigorate his creativity. In the exhibition video, Pearce makes the suggestion that this enigmatic and geometric ‘landscape’ painting is Smart’s “holy grail of paintings” and a memory of his childhood in Adelaide when he “fell in love with the back alleys”.

Jeffrey Smart, an artist who sees both beauty and the impersonal in modern technology and urban living, has made a unique contribution to modern Australian painting over many years, and it is hard imagine his art studio silent, and completely still.

 

Master of Stillness: Jeffrey Smart paintings 1940 – 2011 is showing at TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville, until 31 March 2013.

2 Responses so far.

  1. TWMA says:

    Thank you for writing such an insightful piece on the exhibition; we are very glad to hear you enjoyed your visit to TWMA to see it.

    • Denise says:

      I’m delighted to hear from you, and receive such a positive response to my review. Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition. I look forward to the next one!

Leave a Reply