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!