Jeffrey Smart – A Master of the Maze and Stillness of Life


Artist Jeffrey Smart at his studio home in Italy. Picture: Rob Palmer Source: The Advertiser

Frank ‘Jeffrey’ Edson Smart AO (1921-2013) went to sleep forever on 20th June 2013 in Italy. The Australian born artist had resided in the glorious countryside of Tuscany since 1964, at a place where the light radiated magically from the land.

Many orphans of the heart went to Italy, including the poets and writers Shelley, Stendahl, Chaucer, Milton, Wordsworth, Lawrence and in particular Elizabeth Barrett Browning and John Keats who also remained forever. She was buried in the English cemetery at Florence and Keats in Rome, where his epitaph says “Here lies one whose name was writ in water’. It’s particularly poignant.

Jeffrey Smart always had a very special affinity with poetry and was surrounded by dead artists, poets and art history for the greater part of his life, which surely nurtured his soul and guided his head, his heart and most importantly, hand.

It’s not surprising that he lived in Tuscany, it is after all at the epicentre of our modern world. In this region civilisation was born twice, once in ancient times and once again two thousand years later when the Tuscan people built the cities and towns that shaped their countryside.


San Gimingiano, one of the most popular of its hill towns, with its medieval defensive towers surveying the land for miles

The very features that make Tuscany a hard land also make it beautiful; the valleys setting off the hills, which in turn divide the low ground into distinct units both pleasing and satisfying to the eye.

Powerful plane trees contrast with silvery olives and the slender dark cypresses form a gentle harmony of shapes, all lit by the beauty of the Tuscan light.

Having a sensitive nature to fertile ground is definitely required if you are to garner a creative response to your environment and this unique quality was an integral part of Jeffrey Smart’s very special persona and the hallmark of his works for many decades.

Holiday 1971: swapping one urban sprawl for another…Image courtesy of the Artist Jeffrey Smart and the TarraWarra Museum of Art, Victoria

Jeffrey Smart’s vision was always ‘urban’, as he searched relentlessly for the beauty of modernism in its often-severe straight lines, strong cutting-edge composition and complex geometry.

Emeritus curator at the Art Gallery of NSW Barry Pearce a long-term admirer and knowledgeable consultant on the work of the iconic artist, believed that Smart was the quintessential ‘painter of modern life’

The whole romantic ideal of ancient Greece as a centre for youth, energy, toleration and intellectual freedom where beauty and nature came together as a perfect entity, comes down to us from five centuries before the Christ event – the classical period.

Pearce noted in an interview in Adelaide that “Smart’s modern subject matter is grounded in a fascination with archaeological sites and buildings from the ancient world which are in ruins”.

In June 2008 in a lengthy and very revealing interview with ABC Talking Heads host head Peter Thompson, Smart allowed us all to understand that Smart was a considerable character. At the time he was also entirely amazed that a boy who had grown up in downtown Adelaide could realize a million dollars for a single painting.

As Smart himself revealed after all his years of experience, he still agonized’ over each work that he completed and commented on the fact that he had probably destroyed many more paintings than he had actually sold in his own passionate pursuit of perfection.

Self-portrait at Papini’s 1984-85 by Jeffrey Smart, courtesy Artist and the TarraWarra Museum of Art, Victoria

Awarded the Order of Australia in 2001 for services to the visual arts, Jeffrey Smart’s work is held by the National Gallery of Australia, all Australian State art galleries, and internationally by The Metropolitan Museum of Art at New York.

In 2011 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of South Australia and has held solo exhibitions in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth.

His works were included in many international group exhibitions at the Whitechapel Gallery and the Tate Modern at London.

Off Brindisi 1985: the seas of life are very stormy indeed courtesy Artist Jeffrey Smart and TarraWarra Museum of Art, Victoria

In 1999 the Art Gallery of New South Wales held a major retrospective of his work.

He is known to have compared talk about wine with talk about art, observing that ‘there’s more nonsense been written about art than any other subject, but perhaps wine comes in second best’.

Smart said to Thompson in that now iconic interview “I work on the basis that … our eyes go from left to right, left to right, left to right, always. So I always have something for the eye to start with on the left there, bring it across, and then something to bring it back again”.

Smart was a great fan of English born American poet TS Eliot (1888-1965), arguably the most important English-language poet of the 20th century, who offered up wordy images of vacant lots, suburban houses, slummy corridors – ordinary, ordinary things, made into great poetry…that Jeffrey particularly liked

Playground at Mondragone 1998: A child is so small in comparison to the world at large – courtesy Artist Jeffrey Smart & TarraWarra Museum of Art, Victoria

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence.
Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness

‘The stillness of art’ was a concept Smart both admired and embraced, and it is what he aimed for in his work. He particularly pondered the juxtaposition of time, movement and stillness as well as pursued the meaning and reason of why we dream.

Philosophically and emotionally many of his images are indeed very powerful.

Smart was an art critic for the Daily Telegraph newspaper in Sydney from 1952 to 1954. He was awarded the Commonwealth Jubilee Art Prize in 1951 and became a drawing teacher at the National Art School, Sydney from 1962 to 1963.

Born at Adelaide in South Australia in 1921 he went traveling with his parents as a child and his earliest memory as a child of three is of Europe, particularly paintings near Brussels.

As a teenager he trained at the South Australian School of Art from 1937-1941 and at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière an art school at Paris where independent art was championed.

While at Paris he also enjoyed lessons in 1949 with famed French painter, sculptor and filmmaker Fernand Leger (1881 – 1955), whom many believe was the progenitor of Pop Art.

The Gymnasium 1962: Observing the energy and composition of classical life from a doorway courtesy Artist Jeffrey Smart & TarraWarra Museum of Art

He observed that growing up in Adelaide, which was ‘too square’ was a great experience, especially when during the Great Depression his family moved into a less well-off area. He regarded it as utter bliss looking out from a high-rise flat onto slum houses.

His father he later observed was far too indulgent and named a street after his son when subdividing some land. The street had ‘an outcrop of rock halfway through it and had to be diverted around it.

So ‘Jeffrey Street’ was not quite straight’ he laughingly recalled.

This later reflected on him when he found out he was not quite straight either, something he struggled with for a long time.

Then he found his perfect partner Ermes de Zan, who has helped Smart achieve his aims for over 30 + years.

Retaining his ironic sense of humour seems to have been the mainstay of Jeffrey Smart’s life. He was a teacher and that helped his work ethic, because when he finished at 3:45 each day, it gave him free time to paint.

Being a teacher meant he was also not called upon to go to war.

His painting sales took a long time to happen and so he moved to Melbourne.

Politician Bob Menzies just happened to be walking by the gallery where his new show had just opened and as the story goes, he saw some people inside that he knew.

He came in, related Jeffrey, and they said, “Bob, you’re just the person we want. Open the show.”

So Menzies was helped up onto a chair where he promptly did an imitation of an English Dowager Duchess with a high-pitched voice saying “I declare this blasted exhibition open.” Smart later recalled “I was frightened to death by him”.

Smart has had an amazing and very long career and did not retire until he was 91. We would have to say he certainly earned the rest and recreation he enjoyed for a short time in the grand scheme of his life.

One of my particular favourite works of Smart’s features Filippo Brunelleschi’s dome of the Duomo (cathedral) at Florence painted in 1977, which is sited sitting above a Tuscan field containing one tree on a hill and a traditional Italian red and white striped pole.

Both have their origins steeped in the middle ages and are linked to both barbers and the aristocracy of Venice.

It’s both witty and clever.

Cahill Expressway 1962 by Jeffrey Smart

So is his reflection on the entry to the Cahill Expressway tunnel at Sydney (painted 1962), considered by many to be one of his finest works.

A single figure, the artist, is standing nearby to the entrance on the side of the road, perhaps pondering the dark void representing the great unknown into which the cars disappear.

The sculptures on the monument above seem to also be pointing the way to follow. It is so typical of the many ‘gags’ and ‘games’ that punctuated so many of his works and you can almost hear him laughing at a private joke.

The relationship of the human figure to his surroundings reminds us that the fundamental difference between what Smart recorded on canvas; from the architecture and structures of an urban world, to the world we all actually live in is the ‘human’ factor.

He believed people were far more important than the shapes we inhabited or the objects that we possessed.

Bruce Beresford and Jeffrey Smart at Arezzo in Tuscany Italy 2009 courtesy Bruce Beresford…

The disposition of all of the geometrical elements of the composition is very pleasing indeed, especially the curved wall where light diagonally and dramatically becomes shade.

Aesthetically it displays the ‘perfection’ and ‘stillness’ that occurs when capturing a moment in time, for which Smart has become so renowned.

Quick now, here, now, always –
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.

Successful Australian film director Bruce Beresford was a student in Sydney at The King’s School where Smart was its art master. They reconnected on a boat to England in 1963 and Beresford found himself touring the art galleries of London and in Italy with Smart, whom he acknowledges helped him to know how to shape the way he frames scenes as a director.

They remained in touch over the years and became great friends. Beresford visited him at Arezzo in Tuscany, admiring the way that Smart always found beauty in the modern world.

Today, while we have evolved through many revolutions and the ages and have advanced in so many respects, even modern technology still does not provide all the answers we are seeking. Our spiritual needs require to be addressed and served for both our health and wellbeing. Material comforts are simply not enough, because humans are still striving to push their boundaries further than ever before.

Jeffrey Smart painting his last work, Labyrinth in 2011

While not wanting to embrace the religious fervour of medieval man, modern man wants a better environment, to throw off rigid thinking and to find peace and harmony for the soul where substance and essence can become united as one.

So it is perhaps even more ironic that what many believe is Jeffrey Smart’s final painting was entitled Labyrinth.

Labyrinth 2011: Will we ever find our way – courtesy Artist Jeffrey Smart and Samstag Museum of Art, Adelaide South Australia

The labyrinth is an ancient symbol relating to wholeness, one that is positioned between ‘the metaphysical and mundane reality’. It is a symbol that either provides support for a person’s faith or helps the uninitiated find the way towards their future.

There is no right or wrong way to walk a labyrinth, because it only has one path. Its purpose is about creativity, imagination, contemplation and choice, about focusing your energy, finding your centre, reflecting on the experience, working out how taking time out may enrich your day, and life journey.

Jeffrey Smart’s Labyrinth looked much more like a maze to me, which is a very complex pattern meant to confuse the person taking the voyage by throwing up barriers to stop them as they endeavour to try to find their way out of its mesmerizing and confusing depths.

The sole figure inside looks very alone indeed as he contemplates which way to go now.

He is alluding perhaps to his own personal odyssey, one which has been all about being lost and then finding ways to start anew.

It’s certainly a brilliant visual metaphor for any creative person’s life.

Jeffrey Smart always kept in touch with what was happening in contemporary art and the world and his spiritual compass has now navigated him forward.

Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013-2014

Portrait of David Malouf 1980: courtesy Artist Jeffrey Smart & TarraWarra Museum of Art

1 Comment

  • J Haswell says:

    Beautiful, all of this. Further evidence that TT gives readers some of the very best writing and pictorials. The visionary editor serves an ever-developing banquet, now gobbled up well beyond the platters of Tasmania. Remarkable to think that he launched with little other than his own enthusiasm and one tatty computer.

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