Gallery: Jeffrey Smart |
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Jeffrey Smart

Jeffrey Smart, born in Adelaide in 1921, is the modern Australian painter whose paintings look least Australian. Since his second trip abroad after World War II became a permanent stay, he has been painting that strange yet immediately recognizable area of the planet that his admirers call the Smart Country, a stretch of territory so completely international that one of its characteristic locations is an airport. We might not know where the airport is, but we recognize the lights and signs and colours: it’s a visual language at least as precise as any verbal one. Stamping their geometry on his landscapes, Smart’s buildings are part of the same language. Like all the unsentimental lovers of modern material forms from his teacher Léger through to the American hyperrealists and beyond, he was able to see the purity in shaped metal and concrete. If there is an endemic Australian quality, it might be in the confidence with which he not only combines the functional exuberance of modern industrial life with the iconography of the past, but equalises and balances those two things, so that a Matisse poster in the context of an Australian suburb becomes more lyrical than ever.

Acerbically precise in their strict outlines and flat planes of colour, his most romantically adventurous flights are made always within the framework of an unsleeping sense of form, out of a duty to what he sees. “The world,” he once said, “has never been more beautiful.” If that’s true, it’s partly because the world, over the last half century or so, has come to number Smart’s rigorously disciplined yet lavishly resonant paintings among its inventory of beautiful things. At the same time, he has been among the foremost of those Australians who have taken their country out into the world. One of the nerve centres of Australia’s steadily burgeoning creativity over recent decades has been the Posticcia Nuova, his farm house near Arezzo, which is itself a masterpiece, continually created and cared for by its padrone and his gifted companion Ermes de Zan. The very name of the house asserts the continuity of Smart’s homeland and the old world: New Place was the name of Shakespeare’s house after he became successful, and in New South Wales, when I was a boy, New Place was always the name of the new house when the family of homesteaders outgrew the one they began with, but were adamant that they would never forget it.

— London, July 2007

Photograph (detail) by Don Featherstone, published in Jeffrey Smart by Barry Pearce (Sydney: The Beagle Press, 2005)