Vale Jeffrey Smart

There is a logic for writing a brief post on the death of an artist on my litblog …

For those of you who haven’t heard, the Australian artist Jeffrey Smart died today in Italy (20 June in the Northern Hemisphere), at the age of 91. He painted in a style described as Precisionism – and I wish I could include a couple of images here to show you, but of course they are still in copyright. A Google Images search on his name will, though, quickly introduce you to his work. His subject matter was urban – stark, often focusing on the industrial. Warehouses, roads, factories, high-rises – with nothing natural to soften them. There are often figures, but while they are to scale they tend to be overwhelmed by what’s around them. The figures are rarely personalised. The paintings are clean, geometric, stark and often bright in colour. They feel surreal.

I would call him spare (not minimalist which is something different). And regular readers here know I like spare. By spare in this context, I mean his art looks simple; your eyes can’t get lost – there’s nowhere for them to go. The shadows, any details, are up-front, in your face. And yet, there’s complexity – the meaning isn’t clear and we are forced to ponder what we think he is saying. I find his work beautiful but disturbing.

Given his style, I didn’t find it surprising that in an interview on ABC TV’s Talking Heads a few years ago, he said that he liked T.S. Eliot:

I was interested in poetry anyway. And the images were not about daffodils and roses in the spring, it was about vacant lots and suburban houses, slummy corridors – ordinary, ordinary things, made into great poetry. He was a brilliant man.

On tonight’s ABC TV report of his death, the newsreader quoted Smart as saying that he couldn’t use words so he articulated his ideas in art.

Smart was apparently a neighbour and good friend of Australian author David Malouf who also lived in Italy. Smart painted Malouf’s portrait but it’s not like any portrait of a writer I’ve ever seen – though it’s recognizably Malouf. You can see it on the ABC’s website.

These are a few reasons for writing about Smart on a litblog – but there’s another. And that’s the book of short stories, Expressway, which comprises “invitation stories by Australian writers from a painting by Jeffrey Smart hosted by Helen Daniel”. The painting is Cahill Expressway (1962) (image at NGV). The book was published by Penguin in 1989 and I read it with my reading group in 1990, too long ago now for me to write a review but not so long ago that I’ve forgotten it.

The book was the brainchild of Australian editor Helen Daniel. She chose the painting, and invited over 40 writers to write a short story in response. She ended up with 29 pieces from Australia’s established and emerging writers of the time. They include writers I’ve reviewed here such as Elizabeth Jolley, Kate Grenville, Barbara Hanrahan, David Malouf, Gerald Murnane, and Louis Nowra; those I’ve read before such as Glenda Adams, Peter Goldsworthy, Rodney Hall, and Janette Turner Hospital; and some I’ve still to read like David Foster, David Ireland and Finola Moorhead. It’s a gorgeous, special book that I have kept by my bedside for years.

I shall conclude with some lines from the wicked first story in the collection, “Art is dangerous. Not so?” by Morris Lurie. It’s about an art class:

‘So could we talk about, say, perhaps, what that certain something is, under the symbol, under the metaphor. Estrangement, someone said. Yes. Very good. Modern estrangement. Fine. So shall we, um, nudge that concept a little? Prod it? A poke? Zero in? Anyone? Too dangerous? Come on. Let’s be dangerous. Art is dangerous. Not so? Hmm.’

Here’s to dangerous art – and the artists who create it. Vale Jeffrey Smart!

16 thoughts on “Vale Jeffrey Smart

  1. Sad as the news about Smart is, your post reminded me how important a literary figure Helen Daniel was and how much she championed Australian art in all its forms. I was very lucky to interview her several times and to get to know her before her all-too-sudden passing. I’m so glad you like Expressway too, which is very special.

    • Thanks for this Dina … I was aware of her name but when I checked her out I was impressed by her body of work. I love her intro to Expressway. It’s such an inspired book. And how lucky we are that so many writers responded.

  2. I just love Smart’s artwork. He was able to put so many different aspects of life into one paining. His paintings lured you in to look more closely; and appreciation of his art will never die.

    • Oh thanks Meg … Glad you agree too … It’s art that draws you in then makes you think. It looks simple … Or even fun sometimes … But keeps you coming back because there’s something else there. I’m sorry my post is so plain for such a vivid artist. Seems wrong but copyright is copyright!

  3. And of course he was Phidias in the Argonauts Club. I did briefly meet him many years ago when I was at school and some of the Argonauts were touring the countryside.

    I also noticed an obit yesterday for Ruby Tout, whom I also remember from my youth when I was given a job at Brunswick Girls High School where she was the Head Mistress. Can’t say I remember much about her other than a vague memory of discussing Virginia Wolff with her once.

    • Thanks Anne … I was going to mention that too but didn’t in the end, so I’m glad you did! How exciting to have met him. I’ve just listened to the ABC’s Big Ideas program on him with David Malouf. Didn’t have time to listen to it last night. A wonderful insight into him and, really, into Malouf too.

      Looks like Ruby Tout (what a great name) lived a nice long life too.

  4. The connection between words and visual art is insightful and thought provoking.

    I had heard of smart but did not know much about him. Looking at his work now I think that your description of it is near perfect. I really do like it.

    • Thanks Brian … And I’m glad you like his work. It is mesmerising I think … You keep wanting to look at it. Yesterday I listened to a long interview with David Malouf about him and he described Smart’s work as mysterious. I think he’s right … It looks simple but it has something that makes you wonder.

  5. Must try and download the Malouf talk – I loved the portrait! Didn’t realise they were neighbours either. I also read the Espressway collection and think I grew up in Smart’s suburban world. Wonder why he moved to Italy? Must do some reading up.

    • Oh do download the Malouf talk Catherine — it is really excellent. He talks about why they both moved to Italy — is very interesting about Smart’s move BUT I won’t tell you! It really is a great talk — Malouf is such an intelligent, cultured man and very warm towards Smart. (And now I’m off to bed to finish Bring up the bodies. What a read!)

  6. I’ve not heard of Smart before but I looked at some of his paintings while reading your post, I can see why you like him. The people in the paintings, when there are people, almost seem like afterthoughts or at least like they don’t belong there among the hard edges of buildings and shipping containers or concrete highways. The color is gorgeous. 91 is a good long life but you still can’t help but feel sad there will be nothing new from his unique vision.

    • Thanks Stefanie … I rather thought he may not be so well known outside of Australia which is one of the reasons I wanted to write this post. And it seems that people like you who didn’t know him are looking him up and enjoying his art. How great is that! (And you’re right – he lived to a good age, but the loss is still sad.)

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