Jeffrey Smart

Jeffrey Smart

Jeffrey Smart (born 1921 in Adelaide), is an expatriate Australian painter, who is known for his modernist depictions of urban landscapes.

His first goal was to become an architect; however, he went on to become an art teacher after studying at Adelaide Teacher's College and the South Australian School of Art and Crafts. Smart taught art in schools for the South Australian Education Department from 1942 - 1947. During this time he also acknowledged his own homosexuality.citation |year=1996 |first=Sue |last=Smith |title=Australian Art: Not Quite Straight |url= |accessdate=2007-09-16]

He later studied in Paris with Fernand Léger as well as at La Grande Chaumière. He began exhibiting frequently in 1957. In 1965 he moved to Italy and bought the house where he still resides, Posticcia Nuova, near Arezzo in 1971. His autobiography, "Not Quite Straight" was published in 1996. A major retrospective of his works travelled around Australian art galleries from 1999.


Born in Adelaide, 1921, Smart started drawing at an early age on anything he could find. “My parents would give me large sheets of paper, often the backs of posters or calendars… anything”. In 1948 he travelled around Europe and studied in Paris at the La Grand Chaumiere and later the Academie Montmartre under Fernand Leger. “As my technique grew, I found I could paint those things I liked looking at, those slum streets behind the city apartments”. In 1950 he lived on the island of Ischia in the bay of Naples, where he painted with Donald Friend, Michael Shannon and Jacqueline Hick. When he ran out of money in 1951, he moved to Sydney and spent the next 12 years there as art critic for the "Daily Telegraph" (1952-54), arts compere called Phidias for an ABC children’s radio programme called "The Argonauts" and as a drawing teacher at the National Art School (1956-62). From 1956 to 1962, he also presented on ABC-TV's "Children's Hour". [ [ Cullen, Max (1999) "Jeffrey Smart retrospective on show" on nine-msn's "Sunday", 1999-08-29] ]

He exhibited throughout this period at the Macquarie Gallery. In 1962 he returned to Arezzo, Italy, and has lived there ever since, regarding himself as an "Australian living abroad", carrying an Australian pasparty in New South Wales. But didnt tell anyone only invited family.

Influences and artistic style

Smart is one of Australia’s best known artists with his almost iconic and unique imagery, heavily influenced from various artists and art forms alike. Even though Smart is not a prolific painter, his artworks are internationally recognised and highly acclaimed.Fact|date=September 2007 His stark portrayals of contemporary life, both realistic and absurd, have been the basis of many artistic discussions.Fact|date=September 2007 Critics and admirers of Smart's paintings often debate his subject matter, and whenever questioned in interview, Smart side-tracks the topic of subject matter to his style; "Leaving the interpretation as the prerogative of the individual viewer."citation |title=Jeffrey Smart: Paintings of the '70s and '80s |first=John |last=McDonald |year=1990 |publisher=Craftsman House |isbn=9768097019] Smart states that he “paints a picture because he likes the shape”, and when asked why his skies are always so gloomy and smog-laden or why his faces never wear a smile, he claims "I need a dark sky for the composition, because pale blue at the top of a frame looks nothing… [and] because a smiling face is too hard to paint".

Smart is the least romantic of artists and his paintings are notorious for encompassing lonely urban vistas that seem both disturbing and threatening.Fact|date=September 2007 Isolated individuals seem lost in industrial wastelands, full of high rise construction, concrete street-scapes and an eerie feeling of harmony and equilibrium – where silence and stillness create a deathly ambience. ‘The express rape of the landscape’ is one title hanging over Smart’s paintings, referring to the freeways, street signs, trucks, oil drums, containers, buildings, concrete dividers… that are so ever present in his works. Yet his paintings – full of bold colours and perfect symmetry are beautiful; and the repetition of road signs in his works, inconclusive of where they are pointing to, seem tantalising. Figures are also present in many of Smart’s paintings, which are said to be “impassive observers, reconciled to the contemporary state of things, prepared to accommodate themselves to an increasingly impersonal environment” or as “statements on the dehumanising conformity of modern architecture and social painting”, but Smart contradicts: “The truth is I put figures in mainly for scale…” It is Smarts precise and unequalled attention to clean lines, composition and geometrics that make his eye-catching paintings stand-out ‘in the story of modern Australian art’. “The subject matter is only the hinge that opens the door, the hook on which hangs a coat. My only concern is putting the right shapes in the right colours in the right places. It is always the geometry”.

It was under tutorship lessons with the modernist artist, Dorrit Black, that Smart acquainted himself with the ‘Golden Mean’. Also referred to as ‘the divine proportion’, used in ancient Greek architecture the golden mean is a geometric proportion in a composition, used in many works of art and architecture; the ratio of which is approximately 1:1.618. This complex network of interlocking rectangles, triangles and diagonal lines, is used to calculate the structure of Smart’s paintings, which form the basis of all his artworks. For Jeffrey Smart, geometry and precision of the composition is the key to successful art, much like how comedic timing is the key to the effectiveness of a punch line. “Todays most prevalent myth is that Smart’s work has no content: that everything is a compositional exercise devoted to capturing a formal ideal of beauty”.

Smart's surrealism

Jeffrey Smart’s paintings have been referred to as ‘surreal’, but Smart contends that it is the world of today that is surreal not his depictions of it. “I find myself moved by man in his new violent environment. I want to paint this explicitly and beautifully… only very recently have artists again started to comment on their real surroundings”.citation |title=Images 2: Contemporary Australian Painting |last=Drury |first=Nevill |year=1998 |publisher=Craftsman House |isbn=9057034514] Critics have argued that Smart is a commentator of modern urban alienation – where the post-industrial society has fallen from humans control. Others have cast him as a realist, hyper-realist, ‘off-beat classicalist’ and a metaphysical painter. Some critics have even referred to Smart’s paintings as portraying ‘Orwellian gloom’ – a statement referring, in particular, to George Orwell’s literary political masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four. James Gleeson believes that Smart’s paintings are “too real to be real”; and believes that his realist portrayals of 20th century life are nothing more than superb geometrical compositions and bold colour, of man in his naturalistic, man-made environment. It is true, for instance, that trees are rarely seen in Jeffrey Smarts artworks, and the only grass is that growing between concrete stones, but as Smart claims: “an artist has to be moved to move his viewers”, and Smart is moved by man in nature – man-made nature – not concerned with your typical Australian landscape. “I like living in the 20th century – to me the world has never been more beautiful. I am trying to paint the real world I live in, as beautifully as I can with my own eyes”. “It’s obvious a bunch of flowers or a billabong is beautiful, and I love natural beauty, but I am not moved by it…to me composition is everything…” Smart believes that people should view art with their eyes and not their head; you don’t need to be a philosopher to understand his paintings, you just need to be able to appreciate how he portrays 20th century urban landscapes.

Influence of Piero Della Francesca

At first glance, Jeffrey Smart’s paintings seem to visit an untouched area of art, but he has been influenced by other artists and art forms, (with which some paintings share striking similarities), especially from classical ancient art through his travels, in which curiosity about architecture took him to Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Italy and Yemen. It was this trip that sparked Smarts’s newfound love of ancient architecture, and led him to buying a 300-year old villa in Arezzo, Italy: where he still lives today. An early goal for Smart was to become an architect, and he actually ‘considers himself as a frustrated architect’.

Piero Della Francesca, a famous renaissance painter and mathematician, was the greatest classical influence on Smart’s work. Renaissance Art, (roughly from the 14th-17th century) which came at the close of the Middle-Ages, was a cultural movement formed from the transformation of political, social and economic conditions in Italy. Seeing Piero's works are “…like falling in love”, admits Jeffrey Smart; “To me, the most satisfying painting ever made” was Piero’s, The Flagellation of Christ. A prime aspect, Smart shares with Piero, in addition to the geometrics and composition, is the spatial grandeur and ‘ineloquence’ found present in each of their works. Despite Smart’s identification with the ancient art and architecture of the renaissance period, he likes to be recognised as a contemporary artist, not a ‘classical revivalist’.

The two modernist realists who have had immense impact on Smart’s paintings, are Alex Colville (1920-) and Edward Hopper (1882-1967), “both heirs to the same classical tradition” as Jeffrey Smart. Like Smart, Hopper painted “…Human beings’ values being swallowed by 20th century industrial society…” and “shows that, even though communication and transportation have never been so accessible, the individual is somehow left behind in the rush”. In his work, Hopper focuses on “eerily realistic depictions of solitude in contemporary American life”, works of similar appearance to Smarts. Like Hoppers’, Smart’s paintings have been compared to Post-war Italian movie stills of the ‘50s and ‘60s – where beauty is poetically captured in the ‘humdrum’ Italian cities. Alex Colville paints desolate landscapes settings with lonely characters, and uses much the same geometric underpinning and bold colours as someone who is Smart and intelligent and that was invited to a party and went. :).


Jeffrey Smart regards being able to draw the human being as the single most important attainment of any artist. Unlike many primarily landscape artists he can paint both the human form and the human face, as can be seen in his self portrait work. He regards abstract painters as people who have never learnt to draw.Address to The Brisbane Institute, September 2005, available on CD. And Barry Pearce, Jeffrey Smart, Beagle Press, Sydney, 2005.] Smart mostly paints with oil, acrylic and watercolours, generally using the bold primary colours – yellow, blue and red – and dark greys for his skies. This creates an unusual effect in his works as the foregrounds of his paintings are fully lit despite the dark sky. His style of painting is a long and arduous one, resulting in barely a dozen finished canvases a year. “I always do a lot of preliminary drawings, moving the forms, the shadows, the buildings the figures around the canvas till I get that perfect composition…”

Much of Smart’s direct artistic stimulation comes from, literally, a passing glance as he is driving: “…my paintings have their origins in a passing glance…”. “Sometimes I’ll drive around for months…despair, nothing, nothing, then suddenly I will see something that seizes me: a shape, a combination of shapes, a play of light or shadows and I send up a prayer because I know I have the germ of a picture”.citation |title=Encounters with Australian Artists |last=Hawley |first=Janet |publisher=University of Queensland press |year=1993]


Further reading

* Sayers. Andrew, Australian Art, Oxford University press, New York, 2001, ISBN 0-19-284214-5.
* Hopwood. Graham, Art Students Handbook, specialty press limited, Melbourne, 1955.
* Robb. G, Smith. E, and Smith. R (editor), Concise Dictionary of Australian Artist, University Press, Melbourne, 1993, ISBN 0-522-84478-2.
* McCulloch. Allan, Encyclopaedia of Australian Art, Hutchinson, Melbourne, 1969, ISBN 1871569737
* Capon. Edmund, Jeffrey Smart: retrospective, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2000, ISBN 0 7313 8978 6

External links

* [ Jeffrey Smart An essay by Gazman]
* [ Jeffrey Smart at Australian Art]

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