A century of banal smart painting

JEFFREY Smart is an artist that even art lovers adore.

Jeffrey Smart. Photo: Michel Laurent.

Legendary for his almost surreal cityscapes and paintings of mundane objects such as road markings and billboards, remade to become objects of sheer beauty, his work is so renowned that the The National Gallery of Australia’s exhibition marking the centenary of his birth in 1921 is simply called “Jeffrey Smart”.

I met the co-creator of the exhibition, Rebecca Edwards of the gallery, as she set up the huge exhibition of 130 works.

“Initially, the idea was to have 100 works for 100 years, but that ended up with 130 from public, academic and private collections across the country and from over 50 lenders,” says Edwards.

Describing it as “a real group effort,” she said it took a lot of persuasion for some collectors to abandon their works, even for a short time, for what will be a specific exhibition in Canberra.

But, luckily, there are also works from the NGA’s own collection – in fact most of its collection is included – like the key work, “Wallaroo”; a rare self-portrait from 1950-51, “Procida”, taken after a stay on the island of Procida off the coast of Naples; and later works, such as the colorful “wavy Jioconde” (1976); and his enigmatic final work produced in 2011, “Labyrinthe”.

This won’t be a conventional retrospective, Edwards says, in the sense that she and co-creator Deborah Hart have allowed themselves a bit of freedom to pursue themes around Smart’s elusive artistic practice, particularly apt given the ability to the artist to escape categorization, to explore the spectrum of his work from the figurative and abstract to the purely geometric, of which he once said: “My main concern is always geometry, the structure of painting.

Maybe, but as Hart points out, no matter what Smart has said, and he’s said a lot about art, “his paintings are populated with portraits of friends, lovers and public figures, superimposed on references to literature, art and other artists, and backed up by jokes and personal references.

Edwards admits that there is a timeline on the show, with early work including almost surreal urban imagery of the surroundings of his native Adelaide to later work from the 1960s, where he traveled a wider road.

“It was for us what was fun about his job. Deborah and I wrote major essays and we faced each other in debates, to explore the multiple layers of Jeffrey’s art, ”says Edwards.

One of the things she admires most is the extraordinary discipline behind Smart’s paintings, which she described as “incredibly regarded.” He spent a lot of time on many, many studies and carefully crystallized his compositions.

Once such is his 1951 painting “Wallaroo”, an ode to the seaside town on the Yorke Peninsula. Fortunately, they were able to exhibit some of his preparatory drawings for it.

“It’s nice to bring them together with the painting, it gives people a sense of how he chose and chose.”

There is a lot to recognize in the exhibit.

“Empty streets are part of our daily life, but what he did was distill and compose them and bring beauty to scenes of everyday life that we might overlook, taking mundane objects. and transforming them – like the curve of a highway, ”she said. said.

As she walks through the exhibit talking to me, Edwards spots a relevant wall text in which Smart is quoted as trying to “paint the real world I live in as nicely as possible.”

These efforts weren’t limited to Australia, she notes, and in Europe, where he was to live and die, he began to look at new objects such as apartment buildings and highways.

This brings us to Smart’s ambiguity about his nationality, because although he lived in Italy from 1964 until his death in 2013, he was one of our most famous artists and strongly identified as an Australian, now. a very close causal link with his homeland via a band of enthusiastic followers, so that he is even more famous in Australia than elsewhere.

The exhibition is largely works by Smart himself, but there are exceptions paying homage to his influences, including a painting by one of his oldest friends, Adelaide painter Jacqueline Hick, and a another from his mentor, Dorrit Black, who established the Modern Art Center in Sydney in the 1930s and taught him compositional design.

“Jeffrey Smart”, National Gallery of Australia, December 11-May 15.

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