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September 01st 2008 print

Ian Marsh

Jeffrey Smart and the Voyage to Europe

Now in his eighty-sixth year, Jeffrey Smart has lost none of his bravura, mischief and wit. For evidence you need look no further than his sell-out exhibition of twenty-six recent paintings, which occurred in Brisbane in May. Smart is a living Australian treasure in more ways than one. The most obvious is the price his many admirers pay for his work. But this appetite suggests a hunger for something that money cannot buy. A sensibility? Whatever it is, it engages Smart’s admirers as well as his interpreters.

Christopher Allen’s new book (Jeffrey Smart, Unpublished Paintings 1940–2007, published by Australian Galleries) is the latest study. Antecedents include analytical works by Peter Quartermaine (1983) and John McDonald (1990) and Barry Pearce’s substantial biographical monograph (2005). Allen’s study offers the most systematic account of Smart’s motifs and approach. He also offers a consistently dark reading of the painter’s meaning. The following discussion, which is organised in two parts, suggests some qualifications.

Imagery and Composition

Because Christopher Allen’s study offers such a precise guide to Smart’s iconography, I will follow, and quote extensively from, his work. Allen reviews the three primary elements of Smart’s pictures: his favoured places or motifs; his treatment of people; and his approach to composition.

In his discussion of place, Allen points to the remarkable continuity of Smart’s motifs. Urban environments are his perennial theme. “Sweeping roads, blank concrete surfaces and anonymous building”. Elsewhere: “The most prominent motifs of Smart’s mature world are roadways and apartments blocks.” The latter are represented as abstracted forms, echoes of the severely functional geometry of modernism. Roadways and their vivid signage suggest the discipline and control that are characteristic of industrial civilisation, indeed that make mass life possible. Factories, with their regimented work routines, illustrate another face of the contemporary world.

Allen’s responses are expressed in a grim register. Apartments are anonymous and impersonal, without inner life. They are “relentlessly objective”, efficient “units”. Roads are the

“products of modern engineering demolishing or by-passing obstacles. They are made for efficiency and they come with precise instructions: roadside signs are for speed and direction … these signs become some of the most telling elements in Smart’s world; we seem always to be surrounded by their hard sharp abstract forms, always accompanied by their curt and precise instructions, of which the first is to keep moving.”

Citing a 1975 work, Prohibited Area, Allen relates factory imagery to the aspiration to control and order associated with time-and-motion studies. A variation on this theme is also in Smart’s Brisbane show (The Morning Shift, 2007).

Other characteristic motifs include airports, radio towers, satellite dishes, electricity substations, rolls of cable and containers. All these are emblems of energy and communication. Containers are particularly favoured as motifs. Allen interprets these as “epitomising the equivalence and mobility of all commodities in the modern world”.

The third chapter discusses Smart’s treatment of people, which Allen terms “monadic”: that is, constituting the ultimate units of reality: perhaps also a pointer to the uniqueness of consciousness? Allen’s reading of people is in line with his generally bleak interpretation of place. There is an invariable mood of solitude, whether handled with compassion, as is often the case with young men and prostitutes; or otherwise in the case of suited businessmen who are “less lonely than disturbing, sometimes even menacing”. Solitude lingers even in otherwise psychologically strong individuals like Margaret Olley and Germaine Greer, or in the study of David Malouf, whose subtle and far-sighted awareness in daylight and in darker regions is beautifully rendered.

Allen cites an early (1946–47) work, The Rifle Range at Williamstown, as Smart’s most explicit statement of “isolation and anguish”. He remarks:

“Henceforth the existential tone will be quieter and more impassive. The sense of emptiness or even menace will be implicit in his recreation of the everyday world, rather than explicit in dramatic subject-matter or in expressionistic handling of paint.”

As he matured, Smart’s work moved from a more subjective towards a more disinterested or objective stance, which Allen describes as “disquieting”.

Allen offers an instructive reading of the more subtle tensions that come to figure in these later works. For example, Waiting Woman, Naples Turn-off (1969–70) depicts an awkward and sexually-charged relationship between a balding and suited figure and a confident prostitute: “For the man in the suit to accost the woman in the yellow dress will represent a structural as well as a moral transgression. Perhaps it is the fact that he is tempted that has robbed him of his usual authority.” This is loss of self-possession or dignity in the face of sexual desire: but is this an intimation of lost freedom or a comment on lust—or of something beyond both?

The sexual, particularly homoerotic, tensions explicit in the earlier paintings are gradually muted. According to Allen: “The rather louche and erotically suggestive subjects of Smart’s early maturity … gradually give way to a vision of humanity whose experience is largely determined by the urban-industrial world in which they live.”

The reading of Smart that underwrites the chapters on places and people continues in Allen’s discussion of composition and resolution. The first sentence sets the theme:

“The sense that our lives are implicated in a constructed world that we have made and from which there is no escape is evoked through compositional and formal means as well as through the use of recurrent motifs.”

He notes the various devices that give Smart’s work sometimes a forbidding but always an ambiguous mood. They are a work of emotion but refracted through intellect. Calculation, form and structure always dominate. Horizons can lie beyond the apparent limits of the picture space (for example, The Dome, 1977); or a fence, a building or a poster stretches across the whole width of the canvas confounding spatial expectations (for example, the corrugated fence in La Giaconda, Australian National Gallery). Within these frames each element is individually rendered, reinforcing a sense of separation, even isolation.

Allen sees the “detached and impersonal” perspective that informs all Smart’s work as his most important compositional device. “It is partly on account of his love of clear, rational space and generalised forms that Smart has often been called a classicist.” He explains in instructive detail how space figures in these compositions:

“The proportions of the canvas itself, and the subdivisions of space within the composition—halves, thirds, quarters, either vertically or horizontally etc. the diagonals of the rectangle and the diagonals of subsidiary squares and rectangles within the frame—are the key to an almost infinitely complex range of compositional effects.”

But does mathematical precision figure something beyond calculation?

Jeffrey Smart’s Classicism

The answer turns on the meaning of Smart’s classicism. All his interpreters acknowledge its importance. But as John McDonald notes, definitions are problematic. Like Allen’s, McDonald’s interpretations are bleak, emphasising a pervasive “existential absurdity”, with classical proportion a device that heightens impact.

Barry Pearce offers a more generous reading. He emphasises Smart’s concern with “the enigma of things” and cites the painter’s own words: “When I am painting some beautiful object which has haunted me I feel I’m doing no more than homage to it, in very much the same way as you Christians praise your lord.” Pearce comments:

“In other words his response to a motif was not an act of analysis, or tendentious social commentary, but rather one of inexplicable supplication; thankful for an often modest, slightly odd visual phenomenon in the contemporary world that emboldened him to spend time in the gloriously difficult process of constructing a painting.”

And later:

“It is no wonder that the geometry of his vision has been viewed as the component of gravitas, the answer to the question of meaning in his language that carries forward an echo of some ennobling principle in spite of the apparent irony, even banality—of his subject matter … of how we connect with some time-honoured measurement of humanity in the flux of eternity.”

In specific comments, Christopher Allen lends support to this more expansive reading. For example, he offers an autobiographical account of one of Smart’s iconic pictures, The Cahill Expressway (1962), which emphasises its moral seriousness:

“Painted when the artist was forty … The Cahill Expressway is like a kind of allegorical self portrait. The man in the blue suit stands at the parting of two ways. One heads down into a dark tunnel, the other up to the light and to the monument on which a heroic figure raises his arm in a triumphant or inspirational gesture … The man in the suit is standing on the wrong side of the road, profiled against darkness, and he has lost an arm. Directly above him, the exultant attitude of the bronze figure makes his loss the more painful; and when we realise that the original figure on the monument, which stands outside the State Library of New South Wales, does not have a raised arm at all, it only serves to conform the suggestion that the man in the suit must climb the path of virtue and ambition to recover a lost wholeness.”

The choice refers to The Choice of Hercules, a subject that originated as a kind of koan and that provided a theme for works by Poussin and Carracci. Allen notes that the monument honours Shakespeare, which leads him to recall the self-deprecating words that Eliot gives to Prufrock:

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two …

Elsewhere, Allen offers additional support for a more generous reading. For example: “To make beauty from the barren world that he adopts as his subject is a victory of the spirit.” But what is spirit? What is its victory—what is affirmed and what is overcome? And later: “The world can be understood and this means that loneliness and inhumanity can in some sense be transcended.” In what sense?

For answers we might turn to some of Smart’s own reference points. Allen, in common with all Smart’s interpreters, lays great stress on the painter’s favoured lines from Eliot’s Four Quartets:

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.

What is the provenance of this ideal? Plato gets only one mention in Allen’s monograph, and that is in the context of his dialogue Phaedrus where Socrates explains why he prefers city to country life. Yet Plato surely deserves a more prominent place. The classic ideal, expressed in Eliot’s image of “unmoved movement” had its genesis in Plato’s discussion of the Forms, of which the most immediately relevant is the form of beauty. This essence is discussed in ecstatic passages in both the Phaedrus and the Symposium. In the latter, the priestess Diotima instructs an ignorant Socrates about the true nature of sexual attraction. Through a philosophic myth, she interprets present longing as a remembrance of things past.

Beauty’s charms originated in an intellectual union that transcends sensual or physical experience. Sexual attraction recalls this lost awareness. Attraction signifies pain: a visceral symptom of absence: a recognition of need and incompletion. Its urgency measures the intensity of loss. But crystallisation in an idea testifies to the potency of reason.

In this reading, sexual longing is the physical embodiment of a yearning that points beyond itself. Diotima describes this lost essence as the form of beauty

“as it is alone by itself and with itself, always being of a single form; while all other beautiful things that share in it do so in such a way that while it neither becomes anything more or less, nor is affected at all, the rest do come to be and perish. So whenever anyone begins to glimpse that beauty as he goes on up from these things, through the correct practice of pederasty, he must come close to touching the perfect end … it is at this place in life, in beholding the beautiful itself, my dear Socrates … that it is worth living, if for a human being it is worth living at any place.”

There is of course more to be said about beauty and the other forms, as Plato indicates here and elsewhere. The logical puzzles that are associated with both their existence and their participation in particulars hardly need rehearsing. But considered not as a literal but as a metaphoric account of the practical working of beauty in life and art, this is an instructive rendering. In this account, intensity of attraction, particularly sexual attraction, is primary. But Eros is the child of both poverty and ingenuity. The distortions of understanding and the disfiguring of relationships, to which sexual urgencies can give rise, are never underestimated.

Elsewhere, Iris Murdoch offers a reading of Plato that recognises these imperatives and frailties, but places them in the context of a wider odyssey of spirit. Properly interpreted, beauty is an incitement to objectivity. But this objectivity is not only hard won, it is also of a particular kind. The transcendence that it enjoins is not “elsewhere” in the sense of other-worldly: it is to be achieved in this world, but beyond the urgencies of a passionate but indigent ego, which can demand consolation or distraction before truth. Truth as objectivity rises above immediate appetites to gaze back at life from the stillness of a more detached but also more aware standpoint. In his most famous philosophic myth, Plato describes this “odyssey of the psyche” as if an ascent into sunlight from the twilight and shadows of the cave.

Rilke’s Letters on Cezanne describe this practice in painting:

“I was with his pictures again to-day; it is extraordinary what an environment they create about themselves. Without studying any single one, and standing between the two great halls, you can feel their presence gathering into a colossal reality … you notice better and better each time, how necessary it was to get beyond even love; it comes naturally to love each one of these things if you have made them yourself; but if you show it, you make them less well; you judge them instead of saying them. You cease being impartial; and love, the best thing of all, remains outside your work, does not enter into it, is left over unresolved beside it: this is how the sentimentalist school of painting came into being … They painted ‘I love this’ instead of painting ‘Here it is’. In the latter case everybody must look carefully to see whether I loved it or not. It is not shown at all, and many people would even assert that there was no mention of love in it. So utterly has it been consumed
without residue in the act of making.”

Elsewhere he writes of “the consuming of love in anonymous work”. George Steiner condenses this observation into a poignant phrase: “the epistemology of the loving intellect”.

This Platonic pilgrimage, which classicism celebrates, suggests a more positive and also a more spiritual reading of Smart’s work. Some reinforcement for this view might be available in the artists who Smart himself most admires, Eliot and Proust among modernist authors and Cezanne among modernist painters. In their different ways, they shared an awareness of the idea of perfection as the summit of consciousness and the keystone of past achievements, which they sought to emulate and honour. But they also recognised that this older sensibility could be renewed only in a fresh language and from a fresh, more subjective, standpoint. Once renewed, it lent a timeless measure to their work.

Outside and even within his poetry, Eliot’s “still point’ was ultimately a place for religious meditation. We need not share his specific beliefs to be moved by the aspiration. Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire is a numinous icon, a setting for meditation in a new vocabulary on perennial questions about nature and spirit and an index of the latter’s power.

Proust too figures in Allen’s account. At the outset, he quotes the fictional Marcel reflecting on the mysteries of free will and obligation, as though alien deposits: a reflection that surely also has its analogue in Plato’s anamnesis and Diotima’s tale of love. Later Allen introduces Proust’s moment of grace as a template for understanding Jeffrey Smart’s own painting. For Proust, a madeleine became the occasion for a recovery and crystallisation of memory, beyond the immediate experience, but triggered by it. Jeffrey Smart’s own approach involves the recovery in his studio of a past moment, now rendered by reason and imagination into another reality. But what is the more complete truth that accompanies these acts of recovery?

Allen might have come closer to this meaning through Proust’s later passages, for example one in which he recounts Marcel’s fascination with a musical phrase by the composer Vinteuil. He hears it first at an early point in the book, but recovers its meaning much later. After reflecting on the distance between the few tones that constituted the phrase and the universe of understanding that it evoked, Marcel crystallises this deeper meaning:

“Vinteuil’s little phrase, like some theme say, in Tristan, which represents to us also a certain emotional accretion, had espoused our mortal state, had endued a vesture of humanity that was peculiarly affecting. Its destiny was linked to the future, to the reality of the human soul, of which it was one of the most special and distinctive ornaments. Perhaps it is not-being that is the true state and all our dream of life is inexistent; but, if so, we feel that these phrases of music, these conceptions which exist in relation to our dream, must be nothing either. We shall perish, but we have as hostages these divine captives who will follow and share our fate.”

This is the classical perspective that is arguably the sensibility through which Jeffrey Smart gives life to his own motifs. Encouragement for this view is available in the paintings displayed in Brisbane. I cannot share Allen’s generally gloomy reading. This narrows unduly the artist’s vision. Detachment and distance there is: also oppressions of imagery and atmosphere. But this does not exhaust the vibrations even of the motifs. People are variously treated.

One free spirit is a young graffiti artist and another is a naked woman on a balcony, who smiles with confident warmth towards her unknown viewer. A prostitute in a carpark and a youth running past a poster are vulnerable and unsure, but not trapped as are the figures in the factory scenes that Allen had earlier cited (for example, The Morning Shift). Further, their hesitancies might be symptomatic of a perennial human condition, not a pathology specific to mass society. Even some joggers, exercising by the seeming absurd act of running around the open deck of a Manhattan skyscraper, which is itself placed in a suffocating urban setting, are perhaps gesturing to other possibilities. Meantime, Smart’s allegiances are clear in another painting, Via Piero della Francesca, in which the nondescript street name glows in a numinous light. The painting celebrates Piero’s spatial precepts, which also reflect his intimations of perfection—but often in settings that simultaneously acknowledge distance or absence.

How, in this context, are we to read Jeffrey Smart’s many years in Europe? The return from the New World to the old is a well trodden path. He has many Australian contemporaries and predecessors. In the case of Italy, one thinks for example of Martin Boyd’s earlier search for sureties of faith. Allen interprets his subject’s residence in the Tuscan countryside as an Epicurean gesture—or perhaps, in the spirit of Horace, as the expression of a need for tranquillity. In this reading, Smart’s casa calonica, Posticcia Nuova, is a bucolic retreat, a sanctuary against an unwanted modernity. However, as Allen also notes, the sanctuary is only partial since it is graced by all modernity’s accoutrements.

Another possibility is that Smart has sought an essence that the New World needs to rediscover. And, not unrelated, perhaps he looks for spiritual nourishment in an age that has transcended dogmatic religion. The Renaissance lives in Tuscany. From Florence, through the Val d’Arno, and across to Arezzo and Pisa the emblems of this surpassing cultural moment remain. It lingers if dimly in the geometry of modern mass life. Athens alone rivals Italy’s lustre. But Athenian classicism lives physically only in ruins—Italy’s lingers like bloom. It has survived the ravages of religious and dynastic wars, the depredations of imperial conquerors, the appetites of New World acquisitiveness, the corrupting morality of decadent governments and the emergence of mass society.

No matter how remote in time or how diminished the engagement, the light of the Renaissance shines here still. Another recent voyager, Christos Tsiolkas, found in his Dead Europe only ignorance, decadence and depravity. For succour, he returned to an Arcadian Australian innocence. Jeffrey Smart has sought a different kind of innocence, one whose demands are hard and unyielding. This innocence offers the less immediate consolations of a special kind of objectivity. This is the classic standpoint, which Rilke celebrated in Cezanne, and which Plato held to be sought by all, but rarely achieved—and then mostly only partially or through proxies. This is surely the treasure that Jeffrey Smart has also sought, and which we, fellow explorers, can, through his sensibility, vicariously experience.


Ian Marsh is a professor at the Australian Innovation Research Centre, University of Tasmania.