Master of stillness: JEFFREY SMART
by Michèle Nardelli
Undeniably one of Australia’s most famous and talented artists, Jeffrey Smart has been characterised as a surrealist, an off-beat classicist and a metaphysical painter, but ultimately he defies classification.
1984–85, oil and acrylic on canvas 85.0 x 115.0 cm,
Private collection, © the artist
Born in Adelaide in 1921, Smart had an early passion for drawing but initially aspired to become an architect.
Instead he studied teaching at the Adelaide Teachers’ College and the SA School of Arts and Crafts, two antecedents of the University of South Australia, and then worked for five years as an art teacher for the South Australian Education Department in the 1940s before travelling to Europe.
Following his passion, he studied further in Paris at La Grand Chaumière and later at the Académie Montmartre.
By 1950 he was living on the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples with Australian compatriots Donald Friend, Michael Shannon and Jacqueline Hick, before returning to Sydney in 1951 where he worked for the next 12 years as a teacher, art critic and children’s radio and television presenter.
He continued to paint and exhibit throughout this period and then returned to Italy where he settled permanently in the heart of Tuscany.
But it was in Adelaide that he sold his first painting.
As Smart recalls it was in 1943 that fellow artist Max Ragless bought the work, a landscape of the city, for three guineas at a joint exhibition with Jacqueline Hick at the Royal South Australian Society of Arts.
Just a year later the Art Gallery of South Australia bought Water towers – still a proud part of its collection.
“These early acquisitions, when I was still only 23, were such an encouragement,” Smart says.
“But my time at the art school, which is now part of the University of South Australia, was crucial to my career.
“At art school I was taught tonal painting by Ivor Hele and Marie Tuck, after which it was Dorrit Black who opened my eyes to the dynamic symmetry of ‘the moderns’.
“She taught us about the Golden Mean and how it applied to abstract and cubist painting. All that prepared me for lessons I later received in Paris from Fernand Léger. These foundations were so important.”
Smart notes the support he received in his home town was fundamental in allowing him to pursue his artistic growth.
“My farewell show at John Martin’s Art Gallery in 1948 sold out to supportive Adelaideans. There were no generous art scholarships in those days, so that supported my passage to Europe,” he says.
“When I returned to Adelaide more than two years later I was supported once more and able to work seriously again.”
A big boost at the time was the 1951 Commonwealth Jubilee Art Prize of £500 which Smart was awarded for Wallaroo, a beautifully composed, still painting depicting an eerie scene of two boatmen coming to shore against the backdrop of a deserted built environment in the copper mining port town of Wallaroo. The work was a clear sign of the brilliance to come in Smart’s artistic career.
But the influence of Adelaide and South Australia went beyond art school, its community of artists and encouraging early patronage. Smart notes there is something strikingly reminiscent of Adelaide in the environment of Tuscany, where he now lives.
“South Australia held the voluptuous landscape of the Willunga Plains, so popular with painters like Horace Trenerry, and the splendour of the Flinders Ranges to the north, inspiring the best in Hans Heysen,” he says.
“It would be fair to say that the unique shape and light of these South Australian landscapes, together with my fascination for city motifs, formed the alpha and omega of the way I would continue to see the world through my painting.”
In 2011 Jeffrey Smart was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of South Australia which was presented to him at his home in Posticcia Nuova near Arezzo. This year the University has the great honour of staging a Jeffrey Smart retrospective exhibition – Master of Stillness: Jeffrey Smart paintings 1940 -2011.
This major exhibition gives due recognition to Smart, one of the University’s most acclaimed alumni, his exceptional achievements over a long life in art, and his exemplary contribution to Australian painting.
RARE OPPORTUNITY for art lovers
This landmark exhibition features acknowledged classics and rarely seen works from one of Australia’s greatest living artists and one of the University’s most celebrated alumni, Dr Jeffrey Smart AO.
Bold, individual and haunting, his works are deeply rooted in the urban landscape and reflect our attempts to reconcile ourselves with an often austere streetscape and alien industrial landscape.
Bringing together the strange with the familiar, the works are compelling.
This important exhibition is not to be missed and I want to recommend it to the whole university community.
South Australian born and raised, Jeffrey Smart graduated from the Adelaide Teacher’s College in the 1940s and began his working life as an art teacher.
But it wasn’t long before his passion for art drew him away from the classroom and to Europe to learn more and explore his talent. Ultimately he moved to Tuscany where he has lived and worked for more than four decades.
Today, in his 91st year, he is renowned globally as one of Australia’s most unique and talented artists.
In the years he has been away from South Australia, the Adelaide CAE, the college where he was first educated, has undergone a transformation.
By 1991 it had become part of the new University of South Australia and a broader national movement to ensure more young Australians were being educated for future careers.
Now in its 21st birthday year, the University has a unique opportunity to showcase the considerable talent one of our most successful arts graduates.
I urge you to take the time to visit the wonderful Anne and Gordon Samstag Museum of Art at the University’s City West campus and share in this rare opportunity to celebrate the work of Jeffrey Smart.
Acting Vice Chancellor Professor Joanne Wright
SEE THE ART…buy the book
Published by Wakefield Press, this 150-page quality publication with an essay by Barry Pearce illuminates the distinguished work of the iconic Australian artist.
Celebrated for his exploration of the urban landscapes, the book documents Smart’s 70-year career from his early days as a South Australian painter through to today.
With forward notes from Director of the Samstag Museum of Art, Erica Green, the book contains some of the personal history of the artist and contextualises the influence of his days as an artist in Adelaide right through to his mature works, influenced by his life in Italy where he has spent the past five decades.
Released to coincide with the exhibition of the same name, the Master of Stillness: Jeffrey Smart paintings 1940-2011 book is set to become a significant volume in the history of Australian art.
The book will be available for purchase through Wakefield Press, the University of South Australia’s Samstag Museum and selected bookstores for $49.95 (recommended retail price).
Samstag Museum opening hours
Tuesday to Friday 11.00am - 5.00pm
Saturday & Sunday 2.00pm - 5.00pm