The Jeffrey Smart retrospective focuses attention on the contest in Australian taste between urban and bush landscapes, spotlights the hunger of our art market for a blue- chip painter, and invites debate over whether a gay aesthetic is meaningful. Humphrey McQueen considers these issues against the social and intellectual contexts of Smart’s career.

Signs mistaken as wonders
Jeffrey Smart’s brand label is Cahill Expressway (1962), a painting which had become so well known by 1989 that it inspired a prose collection. Its Sydney locale, architectural patterning and plays with the Absurd, lets us say of other works: ‘That looks like a Smart’. The usefulness of Expressway as a signature for all his oeuvre suffers, however, because it is built on curves and muted tones, thereby giving no indication of the sharply angled candy-coloured blocks that would predominate after 1980.

Smart was forty-one when he completed Expressway, an age at which many Australian painters retire, retreat or repeat themselves. Smart set himself free, emigrating to Italy to work as a painter full-time, having taken the precaution of underpinning his creativity with real estate. He later moved closer to Arezzo where he can ponder one his favourite painters, Piero della Francesca (c.1416-92)

Cosmologically, Piero and Smart could not be further apart. The vision that the early Renaissance fresco-maker conveyed was still a world of saints and angels. By contrast, Smart’s subject matter comes from a domain of commodities where salvation in earned by purchasing branded products, not Papal indulgences. While Smart intones Eliot’s triad of ‘prayer, observance, discipline’, and calls the act of painting a form of meditation, he appeals no less fervently for collectors rich enough to cover their walls with his art.

During Piero’s lifetime, artists shifted from depicting the ethereal with egg tempura and gold leaf across to expressing the weight and tactility of possessions in oil paint. Smart has edged in the opposite direction, disrupting his homage to the market by a pre-Raphaelesque stillness in his settings. The circulation of money and goods required for the expansion of capital is not possible in his world where nothing is being used or exchanged – his own art excepted.

Smart is attracting some of the highest prices for an Australian painter because of the deaths of John Brack and Arthur Boyd. The catalogue tells us nothing about the finances of Smart’s survival, a topic about which he himself is unabashed in his memoirs, asserting that artists should live well.

The exposure and authority that accompany any retrospective underwrite prices in the market, state museums being to commercial galleries what Fort Knox was to the gold standard. Smart’s dealer has just deposited a 1998 canvas with the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the institution that initiated this homage. By curating a retrospective for an expatriate, AGNSW Director Edmund Capon has taken another opportunity to show off his distaste for Australian art. So persuasive did Capon find that monograph that forty-four of its illustrations turn up in this exhibition. Seven of the ones from between 1982 and 1989 can be found in John McDonald’s 1990 book on Smart. The show will not enhance Smart’s status in Italy where he has not exhibited since 1968 and where no art museum has bought one of his depictions of their landscape. Nor has Smart’s reputation ever been as high with Australian curators as with the buying public. His work has almost never been hung at the National Gallery in Canberra, because curators there thought it too illustrative, in a word, charming.

Retrospectives suffer from claims to uniqueness on behalf of their subjects. Capon’s remark that Smart ‘stands alone’ diminishes his achievements by obscuring his distinctiveness which can be perceived only through a multiplicity of contexts, the literary and the painterly, the social and the philosophical – Henry James and Georgio de Chirico, Marcel Proust and Fernand Leger. Smart also deserves to be analysed alongside Australians of his generation, such as James Gleeson, in order to test the qualities of their compositions and the complexity of their ideas.

The senior curator of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Barry Pearce, knows and cares enough to put Smart into one of his contexts, that of Adelaide until the later 1940s. The impress of that city’s set-square plan on the imaginings of its young is explored in Murray Bail’s 1987 novel, Holden’s Performance. Smart took a decade to lift his eyes from country towns to central business districts. Although the city was not the ‘dominant preoccupation’ in the art of Australia in the 1940s, urbanscapes were competing at last with the bush. Depictions of the harbour bridge from the 1920s onwards had provided a heritage for a new generation of Sydney artists, one on which Smart could build, though he avoided that coathanger as overworked. In fact, during the 1950s he painted very little.

The way in which retrospectives are assembled in Australia usually means that significant questions become apparent only after the canvases have been hung. Capon follows Smart’s self-evaluation by highlighting compositional principles without interpreting every canvas. A search for recurrent motifs might have led to some explanation of the splattering of small rocks in ten of the eighty canvases. Are they grave markers, which they echo in The Picnic (1957)? In a painting not on display, stones have fallen from a collapsed awning, thereby adding to their association with decay, or danger.

Although Wagner has been inside Smart’s head since the 1940s, the catalogue makes no attempt to relate Smart’s patterns to Wagner’s sounds or ideas, or to any of the music to which he has listened while painting. Is it possible that Bruckner’s doggedness induces a different rhythm than Mahler’s bricolage? Probably not, but an inquisitive curator might have asked Smart how he saw the connection.

Comparable interrogation is required for Smart’s literary inspirations. Quoting poetry does not an intellectual make. T. S. Eliot’s verse and essays were common currency in every cranny of Australian creativity in the 1940s so that it would have been more of an achievement had Smart resisted their appeal, or found his way to Wallace Stevens. Wasteland I (1945) is the literal application to a ghost town of the title of Eliot’s metaphysical quest, a sign that Smart had taken the surface, not the substance. When did he begin to comprehend? Eliot went on to combine the poetics of modernism with a social conservatism, whereas Smart has crossed Pop Art with name-dropping.

Smart has always been susceptible to superstitions, including numerology and astrology, thereby provoking scepticism about the qualities of his thinking. The space he lavished in his memoirs on his encounters with a spiritualist medium in Adelaide casts doubt on the burden of his debt to the Anthroposophist Mondrian. What difference did he discern between Henri Bergson, who sought to refute Einstein with a subjective notion of time, and  J. W. Dunne’s An Experiment with Time (1927)  which reported dreams prefiguring events? If this grab bag of superficialities is the fount of Smart’s image-making, his claim on our attention is indeed one-dimensional.

Smart would reply that his imagery does not contain any message, which is correct in terms of not taking sides with the Left or the Right. ‘The representative element in a work of art may or may not be harmful; always it is irrelevant’, Smart had read in Clive Bell’s  Art, around 1941. But these pictures are not monkey-puzzles of shapes and colours. His aspiration towards pure painterliness and abstraction is weakened by his titles. A canvases which is no more than a pattern can get by on a number.

Smith’s images are opposed to Modernism because of their pervasive stillness. They are anti-historical because they allow no narrative possibility, lacking before and after, offering only a becalmed now. Chairs, newspapers and towels are just there; they cannot have been left behind because there is no hint of a ‘before’ during which they could have been discarded. Curves in the road and on the signs are the only marks of an ‘after’. Eliot summed up this view in Burnt Norton V: ‘And all is always now’. That statement is radical if it makes us both the bearers of the past and the makers of our future. But the ‘always now’ can also be taken as a denial of qualitative transformation, with change reduced to variations on set themes, an endless recurrence, as in Smart’s pattern-making.

Lessing’s 1766 essay on Laocoon condemned the showing of movement in two dimensions:

Succession in time is the sphere of the poet, as space is that of the painter. To bring two necessarily distant points of time into one and the same picture … is nothing but an invasion of the poet’s sphere by the painter, which good taste can never sanction.

This distance between the claims of poetry against those of painting is pertinent because of Smart’s fondness for Eliot. One strand in twentieth-century modernism - from the Futurists to the Abstract Expressionists - has sought methods for depicting action. His figures are safe from the rush in Frank Hinder’s Wynyard Street (1945).

Smart deals with the threat of the crowd - the MOB, as tories have long referred to people taking charge of their lives - by expelling them from his freize. His cities look as if a neutron bomb has vaporised the people while preserving the property values. When the human figures are included, Smart says they are there to provide a measuring stick for his architecture.

When Smart does admit more than one or two people, he immobilises them, even in The Argument, Naples (1950). Factory and staff (1972) became a photo opportunity, not a depiction of the employees at work, on strike, or undertaking any movement. Elsewhere, tubes and ladders act as cages. The seven kids in Vacant Allotment (1947) were unusual because he allowed them to interact, that is, to behave as human beings. Significantly, the most recent instance of group activity shows well-to-do dancers, who are not going to disturb the social order.

Although Smart keeps the mass of humanity out of sight, his canvases are replete with the hallmarks of mass society, for instance, a Pepsi sign. Smart’s anti-historical images are not a-historical because he takes his subject matter from the whirl of affluence and Admass. The impress of consumerism is apparent also in buildings and machines, especially the internal combustion engine. Semi-trailers appear more often than passenger vehicles, which are parked or dumped. Perhaps the sedans curve in the wrong places for his compositional needs. The containers on the back on his trucks mimic his apartment blocks so that the means of transporting commodities and the sites of their consumption are standardised beyond the achievements of the corporations that fabricate both.

Another element in Smart’s gentrification is his erasure of graffiti. The three exceptions in this show are a scrawled ‘Vote No’ on the wall in Trumper Park (1961), the ‘R.’ sprawled beside the seated figure of Germaine Greer (1984) and the personal ‘JS loves ED’ on Corrugated Gioconda (1975). Otherwise, Smart excludes the rival creativity in graffiti as firmly as marketeers resent its presence across their billboards. Not even in The Argument, Naples (1950), which portrays a soap-box orator, are slogans allowed to disturb the composition, or offend the prospective buyer.

Instead, Smart celebrates the graffiti emanating from governments and business. Their posters, notices, road signs and trademarks control his canvases. As a title, The Directors acknowledges equally the power of the firm and the state.

An added reason for Smart to omit people is that he long ago learnt to eschew what he could not bring off, primarily the human figure and face. His bodies are more awkward than those of his admired Cezanne whose failings as a ‘figure draughtsman’, Smart defends as ‘very human qualities, endearing the work rather than alienating it’. Smart’s limbs are wooden, without of the skeletal joints that allow animation. His figures are not going anywhere, and have never been anywhere. His runners are cutouts, devoid of momentum. Much as Smart agreed with the 1959 Antipodean Manifesto’s defence of the human figure as the foundation of the visual arts, he could contribute nothing to its realisation.

Smart is no more accomplished as a face-maker. When his nameless visages are not hidden or turned aside, they look like plasticine. The eyes usually stare at the viewer, which reduces the difficulties of depiction. He achieves none of the characterisation that came to distinguish his adored Piero della Francesca. His Margaret Olley (1994) is at least identifiable, and the ink sketch of her head is academically proper, though, in the consequent oil portrait, her hand looks like a rubber glove, not flesh and sinew. Germaine Greer is recognisable once you know who she is.

A consideration of Smart’s treatment of texture, colour and shadow will further clarifies his working processes.

Early works such as Wasteland I (1945) were thinly painted but had a rough texture, as if the canvas was part of the composition. Keswick Siding (1945) looks almost like stained ink. The surfaces became thicker under the influence of Adelaide painter Horace Trennery (1899-1958) who clotted his clouds. Between 1950 and 1970, the change in Smart’s surfaces was not from thick to thin, but from the uneven to the smooth, where he has remained.

In the 1940s, Smart’s palette was low-keyed, so that even his reds seemed rusty. Had wartime rationing reset his palette? Smart included few sharp colours before the 1960s, after which they remained as hotspots until the later 1970s, placing bright or sharp colours to catch our eye. He retained a fondness for cerise overalls and Lewers pink vans. He also used passages of white for relief, while turning Mondrian’s panels of colour into trucks. Peeling posters with their slurry of colours in Trumper Park (1961) and Gioconda (1975) show his painterliness at its best, as does the reflections on the bus in Traveller (1973). Night Stop, Bombay (1981) is as clever as Smart gets at positing circles and triangles.

Shadows are as telling as his colours, establishing mood, contributing to form and securing tonal balance. Shadows from empty chairs are like ghosts, inscribing a sense of the uncanny. The shadow from the shutter in At the window of the fattoria (1979) forms a grill so that, although the windows are open, the figure inside remains imprisoned. Approaching storm is indicated by the shadow on the ground more than by the darkling sky.

Smart limits the presence of nature, supplying artificial illumination and favouring the flaxen over the verdant. The distance between his iconography and the Australian traditions of landscape is widest when he puts into practice Corot’s lament that nature is too green and badly lit. When Smart cannot avoid a bush scene, he turns to previous art rather than to the great outdoors for inspiration. The backdrop in the mural Container Train (1983-4) is out of the inter-war school of bleached hills, by Heysen and Gruner.

Declining any interest in naturalistic elements, Smart makes his skies navy blue, purple or black, so that they are at once heighten the theatricality and service a compositional purpose by the balancing foregrounds with their lighter and brighter segments. Elsewhere, the skies appear in tones of dun - some are sooty, a few fawn, brown or yellowish. The sky is often cut off, or kept to the side so that the horizon becomes another arbitrary angle. All these devices keep Smart closer to pictura metaphysica than to Surrealism.

Smart says that he kept his distance from Surrealism because he never cared for self-probing. In Adelaide, he had feared discovery of his homosexuality, by others and by himself. During the fifties, he had to keep himself nice while performing as Phideas on the Argonauts Club. His Australia was a parade ground of poofter bashers, where an Adelaide acquaintance was sentenced to twelve lashes. He assumed that gay liberation would be a fleeting phenomenon: “They don’t call us faggots for nothing”, he remarked out of a fear that the authorities still wanted to burn homosexuals at the stake. Not until the 1990s did he think it safe to come out much beyond his own circles, as he did in his 1996 memoirs Not Quite Straight.

Whether Smart’s sexual preferences can be discerned from his art work is a test of the possibility of a gay male sensibility for the creation of art as well as its appreciation. Desire is easier to read from Donald Friend. Analysis of Dobell, Gruner, Hoff, Lambert and Long has become caught up in the game of ‘were they or weren’t they?’. All that matters is whether it made any difference to their art.

On what criteria are we to distinguish Smart’s nude lads in Kapunda mines (1946) from the skinny-dippers painted by the heterosexist Heidelberg School?

We could read Smart’s manipulation of nature and society as the self-protectiveness of an outsider. Like ten of thousands of other creators, Smart took up T. S. Eliot’s concept of the ‘objective correlative’, which the poet-critic had explicated in 1920:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion: such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

But it is a long jump from alienation to inversion, especially when the imagery does not coincide with homoerotic fantasy. Equal numbers of men and women appear as nudes, partly or wholly undressed. He alters the gender to get the right visual effects by replacing a man in neutral slacks with a girl in red shorts.

If we omitted a handful of works such as San Cataldo I (1964) - where the male nude might be cruising, showering or left-handedly wanking - could anyone guess at Smart’s sexuality merely by looking at this retrospective? Not, I suggest, from one of the most sexually charged images, Elizabeth Bay (1961), which is a dream scene where a naked man, viewed from the rear, is masturbating over a nude woman out on a jetty. The crack of lightning is an objective correlative for his climax. The red towel speaks of passion as potently as it fulfils the compositional need for a contrast against the black sky.

The connection between sexuality and art-making has its mundane side. The absence of dependents can give the gay male greater freedom with income, whereas a parent must balance the risks of penury from art against the needs of children. The prams in Smart’s Holiday resort (1946) and Approaching storm (1955) recall the passage in Cyril Connolly’s 1938 Enemies of Promise that alleged ‘that there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall’, a point which Smart endorsed in his autobiography when he called suburban domesticity ‘a dire situation for a painter’.

Same-sex relationships cannot avoid the compromises between two creators in straight marriages, as has been documented for Auden and Kallman, or White and Lascaris. Two of Smart’s apprentices, Ian Bent and Ermes de Zan, became his lovers, and gave up painting. Let us hope that any pursuit of the compromises between love and art made by gay and lesbian couples will be handled with the judiciousness that Drusilla Modjeska’s has brought to her reflections on Stella Bowen’s decade with Ford Maddox Ford in Stravinsky’s Lunch.

Humphrey McQueen is the author of three books on Australian art, including Suburbs of the Sacred (Penguin, 1988) which deals with the post-1945 decades.

The Jeffrey Smart retrospective will be at the Art Gallery of South Australia from 26 November 1999 to 6 February 2000, then at the Queensland Art Gallery, 10 March to 21 May, before concluding at the Museum of Modern Art, Heide, Victoria, from 10 June to 6 August 2000