Jeffrey Smart is one of few Australian artists that can boast a career and body of work that spans half a century. Although he has long since left Australia, his influence on the Australian art scene and beyond is without peer. Growing up in Adelaide during the depression, Smart initially wanted to become an architect, before ending up as an art teacher in his early twenties where he taught at a variety of South Australian government schools and also The King’s School in Sydney. As well as dabbling in journalism and in the media, Smart continued to develop his skills and technique and travelled to France to train under Fernand Leger at the Academie Montmartre. Smart move to Italy in 1965 and has been settled in Tuscany ever since. Although he has established a life far removed from his own upbringing, he still considers himself an “Australian living abroad”. Smart has held over fifty solo exhibitions in his time, including a retrospective that was held at the Gallery of NSW in 1999. Smart has always believed that the depth and breadth of his work is the result of a business like work ethic and approach to art making. Investing time and energy in to his studio as if it were an office, working 9 to 5 type hours and constantly pursuing a new level of perfection with his techniques have all contributed to the impact that his precisionist paintings have on their audience. As an expatriate, many of his landscapes depict scenes of a more industrial Italy, as opposed to the romanticised visions of rolling Tuscan hills. However, his choice of imagery is relatable to Australian cultures and the juxtaposition between the natural landscape and man’s banal influence on his surrounds is evident in much of his work.
SELF-PORTRAIT AT PAPINI’S
1984-5 Oil and acrylic on canvas (85 x 115cm)
Smart has always had a less than conventional approach to portraiture and his self-portrait is no exception. His depiction of Margaret Olley in the Louvre or David Malouf placed in a seemingly incongruous setting allude to the fact that Smart factor’s in more than just the meticulous level of detail and structure in to the face of his subject. When asked why his portraits are never smiling, he has stated that it is because he can’t draw smiles very well. This yearning for perfectionism and a steadfast vision to not produce anything without the highest level of competency and execution is evident throughout his body of work. These “anti- portraits” are Smart’s attempt to keep his subjects’ ego or level of self-confidence under control. Smart, who never accepts commissions, is often reluctant to produce portraits of individual’s who already have an overinflated sense of self worth. He therefore strives to ensure that their figure is just part of the composition, as opposed to the only element in his painting. His self portrait at Papini’s is of a similar vein in that Smart depicts himself immersed in a factory setting that has become so synonymous with his work. Yet, through his hyper-realistic approach to detail and the use of vivid colours, he somehow has the ability to give a level of vibrancy and life to an image that otherwise would seem quite bleak. Smart considers portraits where the subject is sitting in a chair staring outward from the canvas as “such a boring composition” (Backhouse, 2009) and it has lead him to create such an exciting range of unconventional portraits throughout his career.
THE OIL DRUMS
1992 Oil on canvas (47.5 x 72.5 cm)
can convert the mundane in to something truly beautiful. However, Smart is alluding to what he has described previously as the “express rape of the landscape” (McDonald, 1990), referring to industrial and impersonal elements that litter otherwise impressive environments. With regard to the trumpeter in the foreground, Smart has often said that his figures represent “…impassive observers, reconciled to the contemporary state of things” (Hawley, 1993) whilst also noting that sometimes he just inserts figures to give a sense of scale. Smart’s desire to be an architect, whilst also being inspired by individuals such as artist and mathematician Piero Della Francesca highlight the methodical and geometric approach to his compositions. His use of grey, brooding skies offsets the primary colours of the drums, which seem to illuminate in their setting. Apart from the composition, which is often the focus of Smart’s works, he explains that the sense of stillness and the relationship between light and shadow is of equal significance. Preferring to work more from sight than photo, capturing the nuances of varying light across a range of surfaces, angles and shapes is testament to Smart’s ability to capture a scene as realistically as possible.