Regrets, he's had a few
An acquaintance of mine tells the story, not without a certain bitter rankle to his voice, of a time in the 1970s when he lived on the top floor of a block of flats in South Yarra in Melbourne. Often he would take a stroll among the many little specialty shops in the area and on one such occasion his attention was grabbed by a large painting in a gallery window--a striking image of a man standing at the edge of a freeway.
For several days he agonized over whether or not to purchase the painting and although he was captivated by the image, the $2000 price tag was a hefty sum for someone living on a school teachers salary. Deciding in the end it would be far more sensible not to indulge his artistic fancies he forsook the painting and consigned the memory of it to the back of his mind.
I first encountered Jeffrey Smart on an excursion to the Victorian Gallery and I too was instantly captivated and by the very same painting that had so mesmerised my friend years before. The painting was Jeffrey Smart's Cahill Expressway and much to that poor school teacher's self-flagellating regret, is now an icon of modern Australian art and a blue-chip valuable commodity, probably worth a million. Peter Carey used it to effect on the first edition dust jacket for his collection of short stories The Fat Man in History. It just doesn't pay to be too sensible.
Cahill Expessway is a wonderful painting. Smart's urban/light industrial landscapes have a lucid but detached tone that has a kind of hypnotic pull on the viewer. A similar effect can be observed viewing American Gothic --it's drama without histrionics. With Smart's painting any emotional content comes from the viewer and not the artist, who has created an impassive portrait of an isolated man in an urban landscape. With subsequent viewing the painting seems to take on more complexity and the freeway can be read in a number of ways; as a metaphor for modernity or time or travel...or emptiness.
The suited fat man seems to standing a in a kind of void, caught in a motionless silence and dwarfed by the size of an impressively built but nonetheless empty structure. In the background the buildings of the city loom...the fat man should belong there -he is suited, ready for work, yet he seems displaced and alienated.
Smart creates visual metaphors in his paintings and it is that which connects with the viewer to create an emotional resonance, in the same way a lyrical metaphor in a song or poem might. The artist doesn't need to make his own emotions obvious in order to convey intense feeling.
Smart's painting's are not self-consciously Australian - they could be any urban landscape, anywhere in the world and indeed, he has not lived in Australia for a long time. Rather, these are the urban-scapes of the world we live in -sometimes harsh, alienating and all encompassing but nonetheless compelling, especially in the detail. The green roll down shutters in the balcony painting at right, for example, are suggestive of paranoia and insecurity.
The painter often favours vivid planes of flat colour with beautiful contrast hues in the details and background and the human element is represented by small insignificant figures.
In Holiday, a motionless, diminutive figure is suspended in a box that jutts out from a towering building. As is the case with Cahill Expressway, the effect is that he is part of the landcape but at the same time separated.
The figure is impersonal yet we can identify with the 'humanness', as we can with the slightly more animated figures in the picture above and although these figures are not swallowed up by the buildings around them, they are reduced by them. Their humanity however, only seems more poignantly obvious because of this.
The Shrinking Portrait
Fellow expatriate Australian and humourist Clive James tells the story of when he sat for a portrait at Smart's studio in Tuscany. At the end of the session James took a look at the prepatory sketch and thought with some satisfaction that he looked a little like a Roman senator -'rather heroic'. However it was to be some years before he saw the final painting and when he did he was startled to see that he was just a speck in a vast modernist landscape (below).
Born in Adelaide in 1921 Smart studied at the South Australian School of Arts and Crafts, left the country after WWII and studied in Europe for a time at the Academie Montmartre. He returned in 1951, became a critic for the Daily Telegraph and then a broadcaster for the ABC.
~Oh yes, it was a very lonely thing. Being an artist and being queer was a very lonely situation~
Openly gay since the 1940s, Smart published his autobiography, Not Quite Straight in 1996. He moved to Italy in 1965 and in 1975 moved into what Clive James refers to as "the most beautiful house for an artist to live in", the Posticcia Nuova, near Arlezzo and has lived there ever since.
~Edna Everage calls an expatriate a traitor. Nothing of the sort, I think it's absolute nonsense. I'm an Australian who lives in Italy. I never feel anything but Australian, how could I not?~
- American Gothic
Art critic Robert Hughes once remarked of this arresting image, painted in 1930 by Grant Wood :"Along with the Mona Lisa and Whistler's Mother ... it's one of the three paintings that every American knows." ...
- Barry Humphries
When entertainer Barry Humphries, aka Edna Everage, returned to Melbourne a few years ago to perform in his stage show, Back to my Roots and other Suckers, I thought I'd better lash out and purchase a ticket....
- How the Australian Painters Came Home | clivejames.com