Jeffrey Smart has come to be considered a legend for his urban landscapes.
JEFFREY SMART, 1921-2013
Iconic artwork by Jeffrey Smart
Though he lived more than half his life in Italy, Jeffrey Smart was regarded as one of Australia’s greatest artists. Drawn to urban landscapes as a child, he later told The Sydney Morning Herald that by his early 20s he knew he had “painted my last billabong scene”, preferring “urban life, factories, trucks and vacant city lots”.
His mature paintings take these everyday symbols of modernity and transform them into remarkably still, harmoniously composed images. Human figures are often small and isolated – regarded by many as a representation of urban alienation, but for Smart merely a compositional requirement.
As Barry Pearce wrote in his book Jeffrey Smart, he was a “charming, effusive character with a mischievous sense of humour, a prodigious reader, a brilliant conversationalist (and) excellent listener”. At times he could be “aloof” or “wilfully self-centred”; at others, quite the reverse.
Jeffrey Smart at work on an urban landscape in Woolloomooloo in Sydney in January 1947. Photo: Harold Bryant Hutton
Jeffrey Smart was born in Adelaide on July 26, 1921, to Francis Isaac Smart and his second wife, Emmeline Mildred (nee Edson). There was already a daughter, Dawn, born to Mr Smart’s first, late wife.
Aged four, Jeffrey and his family travelled through Europe, the place of his first memories. Soon after they returned home, the Depression hit and Mr Smart’s real-estate business went into liquidation.
By then, drawing was already an “obsession” for Smart junior, according to his autobiography, Not Quite Straight. At the age of 12, with his parents’ finances recovering, he began Saturday art classes. However, as it came time to consider a career, they dissuaded their son from pursuing an artist’s life.
Jeffrey Smart’s work, Cahill Expressway (1962).
He decided to teach art and went to Adelaide Teachers College, but attended infrequently. He found greater satisfaction in evening and weekend studies at the South Australian School of Arts and Crafts, and was among students invited to Dorrit Black’s studio; her views on symmetry and composition were very influential.
During this period Smart also attended several seances which, together with premonitory dreams, were a strong spiritual influence throughout his life. He had abandoned Christianity as a boy, while a chorister at St Peter’s Cathedral.
Another significant episode during his tertiary studies was his first romantic kiss. From early high school, Smart realised he was attracted to boys, which was socially and legally unacceptable in Adelaide at the time. After years of anxiety, an unexpected kiss from a man was such a shock that he stumbled off, sobbing.
He recovered, and had several lovers of both sexes during his 20s, but struggled with his sexuality until Mic Sandford, the man described in Smart’s autobiography as his best friend, “helped me accept what I thought was unacceptable”. He was nearly 30.
This acceptance came while in Europe but before Smart could escape the home town he found stifling, he had to graduate (1941), then start earning money by teaching, which also enabled him to avoid military service.
He began showing his work, starting with a Royal South Australian Society of Arts group exhibition in 1941. Three years later he daringly mounted his first solo exhibition at a Melbourne gallery. The once-and-future prime minister Robert Menzies opened the exhibition.
Smart’s artistic stature grew. His acquaintances included painter Russell Drysdale, and his work was bought by collectors and leading institutions such as the Art Gallery of NSW. But he longed to be in Europe.
Smart delighted in the Continent’s well-stocked galleries and other places of artistic significance. Highlights included the former home of Cezanne, the cubist painter he greatly admired, and paintings by Renaissance artists Piero
Cash-strapped, he returned to Adelaide in 1951 before moving to Sydney, at first living with his half-sister. Shortly after his arrival, Smart won the Commonwealth Jubilee Prize but was never able to pursue art full time during his 12 years in Sydney.
Smart began his permanent expatriate life in 1963, travelling around Europe before settling in Rome in 1965. He lived with his first long-term partner Ian Bent, a young artist he met while teaching at what is now Sydney’s National Art School. They moved to Tuscany in 1970 when Smart bought a villa.
In 1976, Smart began his long, happy relationship with Ermes de Zan, an artist. He was to take over Bent’s studio but soon filled it with tools used to dramatically revive the villa’s garden.
By then, Smart was receiving significant commissions, and mounting increasingly successful exhibitions. He travelled frequently in his later years, indulging his interest in art, archaeology and classical music (including numerous performances of Wagner’s Ring Cycle). He also loved literature.
When at home he had a well-established routine. But by his own estimation he worked slowly, producing fewer than 10 large works a year, and was “90
By then Smart was 86 and joking that the exhibition was his swansong but, as he wrote in his autobiography, he hoped to work until the end of his life.
Two years ago, Smart, who spent his latter years in a wheelchair and had difficulty breathing, said of his art: “I think it’s time for painting to be in abeyance”.
Smart’s partner of more than 30 years, Ermes De Zan, with whom he lived near the town of Arezzo, was with him when he died.
His last painting ‘Labrinth’.
Author: Patricia Maunder