Jeffrey Smart, Service Station Calabria (1977) The Jeffery Smart exhibition is a retrospective with some common themes spanning the prolific artist's 70 years of groundbreaking work | Source: NGOA

Jeffrey Smart Exhibition Shows the Antithesis of Australiana, Revealing a True Modern Australian Artist

Jeffrey Smart was an observer, the dramatic composition and depictions of light and colour in his artworks indicative of someone constantly trying to recollect an image or angle of the modern world that relied more on the currency of context than emotive imagery.

That’s not to say his artwork does not elicit an emotional response but more that his unique perspective is immediately evident in all of his paintings, some of them almost frustrating and all leaving the viewer pining for an expanded view of his recurrent, non-linear actors and subjects.

The work of this important Australian Artist is on display at the National Gallery of Australia until the 15th of May and will, despite covid related restrictions attract a handsome viewership.

Never meaningfully embraced by the artistic institutions of Australia in his lifetime, Jeffrey Smart’s work remains a crowd favourite, collecting a large following here and overseas.

Born in Adelaide one hundred and one years ago this year, Smart spent his youth in South Australia and after being an art teacher decided to become a painter himself, he loved European and Australian Modernism and so spent the best part of his last sixty years living in Tuscany before his death in 2013.

The exhibition is divided into three main sections, his formative years in Adelaide, the honing of his craft in Sydney and his later years spent painting in Italy.

His exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia is broadly structured as a chronological retrospective but draws parallels between the recurrent themes of surveillance, portraiture and self-reference that allow us to appreciate the mature, forward-thinking narratives of Smart’s early work and the relationships between works from different stages of his life.

Some of Jeffrey Smart’s most famous artworks are being shown at the exhibition, here is a sample of the most renowned.

Jeffrey Smart, Cahill Expressway (1962)

Cahill Expressway shows us Jeffrey Smart’s compositional mastery, clearly defined geometric shapes jump out of the picture to capture the viewer and draw their attention forcefully around the image, complemented by the distinct separation between colours and subtle but very effective use of shading to create a compelling narrative.

The lone figure is positioned to captivate the viewer and lengthen the narrative, like a choose-your-own-adventure book, the perspective of the picture at eye level with the man encourages us to peer into the darkness behind him or follow the high road towards the buildings and monuments against a background of Smart’s signature dramatic sky.

Painted while Smart was living in Sydney, this work represents Smart’s maturity and innovation in the inwardly-focused Australian art scene of the 60s.

Jeffery Smart, Portrait of Clive James (1991–92)

The powerful Portrait of Clive James is a comical take on the classic portrait.

This riddle of a painting leaves us guessing at what point Smart was trying to make, if he was trying to make a point at all, is it a protest against the archetypal portrait? Is Smart attempting to mock the subject of the painting, or indeed the viewer?

These types of enigma are his bread and butter and in Portrait of Clive James, Jeffrey Smart showcases his classic impactful composition and narrative-driven imagery, again with a lone figure, again with what could be perceived as a frustratingly limited perspective.

Perhaps Smart was expressing his disdain for a style (portraiture) that he knew he would have been proficient at, a kind of arrogance that he knew would captivate the viewer better than any supreme command of compositional elements, of which we can see his ability to utilise in this clever painting.

Jeffrey Smart, Labyrinth (2011)

Painted two years before his death in 2013, Labyrinth would become Jeffrey Smart’s final completed painting, it showcases his love of surfaces, lighting and mysterious lone actors, as motivation is brought into poignant question.

Perhaps drawing inspiration from Picasso’s multiple depictions of the mythical Minotaur and how those images became a kind of surrogate self-portrait, the image is commonly interpreted as Smart’s take on the process of the artist.

The maze is representative of the creative process constantly directing the artist down a dead end, with the artist then able to retrace their steps to find their original inspiration.

Jeffrey Smart’s depictions of modern Australia and the modern world are a direct, possibly intentional contrast to the Australian art scene of the 20th century, where artists such as Drysdale and Nolan used iconic Australian imagery to abstract and explain what it meant to be an Australian at the time.

His wholesale rejection of the status quo is what makes his works so powerful and impactful, he is remembered through his work as a dreamer and observer, ever ready to offer an alternative view or witty observation to a discourse that is now significantly smaller after his recent departure.

Sometimes I will drive around for months despair, nothing, nothing, then suddenly I will see something that seizes me… a shape, a combination of shapes, a play of light and shadows and I send up a prayer because I know I have a germ of a picture

Jeffery Smart

His exhibition is showing now at the National Gallery of Australia until the 15th of May, 2022.

Prices are A$17 for an adult, A$15 for students, A$13 for gallery members, A$5 for children 5-16 years old, A$44 for a family pass (2 adults and 3 children) and A$39 for a gallery member season ticket.

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