Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sunday Essay - musings on the death of Jeffrey Smart

The death of Jeffrey Smart brings to an end the career of one of Australia's greatest painters. Being pedantic, he actually stopped painting two years before his death, but you know what I mean.

I'm not sure when I first discovered his art, perhaps when he was Phidias (the art compere)Jeffery Smart Cahill Expressway on the ABC children's radio programme, The Argonauts (1956-62), although I did not know who he was.

The first painting that I clearly remember was of Sydney's Cahill Expressway.  The things that struck me were the lines and what I saw as the loneliness.

I grew up in a far less visual world than that of today. TV came late to Armidale, and then my parents did not buy one immediately because they thought that it might distract from our studies. There were far fewer magazines, no computers, no colour spreads in papers. In many ways, it was a black and white world so far as visual expression was concerned. The one exception was painting.

I wasn't a good artist, although we drew sitting at the kitchen table near the fuel stove. Later at Glenroy, my Aunt and Uncle's property at Kentucky south of Armidale, I remember sitting listening to Australian artist Doug Pratt talk. You must draw and draw, he said. Take a gum tree and draw it in different ways until you can capture every element. I lacked the skills and indeed the patience to do this, but I remembered the advice. Jeffery Smar Fisherrmen

This is another painting by Jeffrey Smart. Again, notice the lines, It's surrealist, staged, but also captures the basic realism.

While I grew up in a less visual world, this does not mean that access to art was limited. Indeed, it was there in a way that is perhaps less common in today's visually overcrowded world, where the images constantly move across the screen, crowding out earlier images. Now I have to say at once that Armidale was not quite your conventional place, nor was my family background completely typical. I thought of it as normal, but that was because it was normal to me.

The walls at our place and also my grandparents' place just down the road were covered with paintings. Looking back, the selection was limited by today's standards, but they were an introduction to a slice of works by Australia's then well known artists. When Helen, eldest, was a baby and we were back living at Marsh Street for a period, I used to carry her around the walls describing the paintings. She always settled, coming on the journey with me. Jeffrey Smart bus terminus

Before going on,this is another piece by Jeffrey Smart, Bus Terminus. Again, notice the lines and the colours.

The Armidale Teacher's College was just up the road from our place. Talking to a friend a few days back, I tried to explain the role of Howard Hinton. Hinton was something of a recluse, if also an adventurer. He lived simply, but became a notable benefactor, spending his money in that way instead of on himself.

In 1929 he gave the newly established Armidale Teacher's College its first picture, 'The Lock Gates' by Sir Adrian Stokes,. R.A. In the end, he gave over 1000 works to the college and an art library of some 700 volumes. He hoped to illustrate the development of Australia art from 1880. The collection is widely recognized as a priceless anthology of the artistic impulse in nineteenth and early twentieth-century Australia. Norman Lindsay described it as the only complete collection of Australian art in the country.

I said that neither Armidale nor my family life were completely typical. One of Hinton's conditions was that the paintings must be displayed for all the students to enjoy, so they lined the walls of corridors and classrooms. Walk into one classroom and you would find it dominated by Norman Lindsay, another classroom by Tom Roberts.

In those more relaxed days, we played along the corridors. You could just walk in. Jeffrey Smart luxusy cruise 1972-1973 Hard to believe now that we could just wander past or even throw chalk at paintings worth millions of dollars,

Before going on, this is the last of the  Jeffery Smart paintings that I wanted to show you, Luxury Cruise.

As I wandered, I wasn't thinking about the paintings as art works, things that I should study in reverent silence. They just were.

Much later when I became interested in Australian art, the changes in that art. the way the art fitted with Australia's history, I started to buy pieces that fitted in, that I could explain aspects of the past. Now I used to take people on tours of Ross Road in Queanbeyan and show them.

Thea Proctor is an example, fir I had one of her ballerina pieces. She was born in Armidale and was a boarder at NEGS, That's the local connection, but she also occupied a significant position in Australian life and culture. Sadly, I had to sell the collection, but the memories remain.  

Years later, that remains true.Clare

This is a sketch by Clare, youngest, the Bohemian of the family. It's not a very good reproduction, but it shows the experimentation and seeking that remains a feature of the search for artistic expression.

Today when in my own imperfect way I seek to explain and connect, I think of this history.

I cannot paint, nor use the visual techniques that Clare uses whether expressed through the computer medium or on paper.

I experiment, using various combinations of the word and the visual to define and present the points I want to make. 

When I think of Jeffrey Smart I think of him in that perspective. I think of his lines, of his sparseness, He will continue to influence my thinking. That's not a bad remembrance.    


Anonymous said...

Lovely piece, Jim. Thank you. And Clare certainly has talent.


Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, kvd. Clare certainly does have talent!

Anonymous said...

Sorry you had to sell your collection. I still have mine, and have been lucky enough to be able to add to it. I love it, even though, yes it is limited (although highly eclectic) and undoubtedly old fashioned, and the art historians with whom I worked would sneer (except about the Proctor). After 40 odd (no comment from the peanut gallery)years of collecting, almost out of wall space and have had to install gallery hanging. Introducing me to Oz art is all your doing, so thank you.

Jim Belshaw said...

Now JC, would I make any comments on 40 odd years? It might be too revealing! Good that you are still enjoying the paintings, though.