Jeffrey Smart – Master of Stillness – Samstag and Carrick Hill – Til 14th Dec – 5K

Wallaroo (1951) National Gallery of Australia

By Peter Maddern

Jeffrey Smart holds a special place in the South Australian art scene, an artist who saw the light both in a new way on his canvases and who knew by the age 30 it was time to get out of Adelaide – ‘if you knew the Adelaide I knew, you had to get out.’

Still, as Barry Pearce, the curator of this exhibition, Master of Stillness, notes there is much in Smart’s work that has persisted since his days here that ended around 1950. In particular the crisp, clean, bright light that our Mediterranean climate delivers and his passion for the seemingly mundane artefacts of a technologically developing world that have so defined his aesthetic, as strong in last works as his earlier ones.

This exhibition is in two parts, the early, Adelaide works are housed at Carrick Hill, significantly so given the close association between both with the Hayward family; his ‘greatest hits’ collection can then be seen at the wonderful Samstag Art Museum on North Terrace.

As geographically challenging as this may be, both are well worth the visit. A return visit to Carrick Hill is always a delight, roaming around the beautiful gardens with their unique views of the city and exploring the home. But a visit now to see Smart’s work is perhaps the more rewarding of the two Master of Stillness adventures. For there one sees very closely the development of the style that Smart has made his own and which has attracted no shortage of imitators.

Labyrinth 2011

Taken in by T.S. Eliot’s verses about urban and industrial landscapes, disused buildings and desolate vistas, Smart travelled widely in the State from, for example, Robe in the south to Kapunda in the mid north, to create visions that matched the stanzas. Not only does one see how the style grew over a decade (and particularly after about 1945) but also the first uses of so many of his now famous motifs. For example, in Kapunda mines (1946) we see semi dressed men and dark, forbidding skies, in Holiday resort (1946) the abandoned pram.

As interesting as any is Wallaroo (1951) which generates an instant flash of Russell Drysdale’s The Cricketers, yet closer inspection also identifies all the building blocks of one of his most famous works, Cahill Expressway which he painted some 12 years later.

But Sunday morning service (1945), Robe (1947), The salvagers (1946) and Vacant lot Woolloomooloo (1947) are also fascinating as works of their own as well as shining light on the creation of a style that came to capture the imagination of the international art world.

Not that there aren’t many great works to see at the Samstag but perhaps the most significant is Labyrinth, his last work, painted just last year before physical infirmity and frailty consigned his paints and easel to the too hard basket. In it are so many of his trademark elements, his love of geometry, the clear, still air, the dark skies building and the solitary figure (perhaps Smart himself again) in the midst, neither here nor there.

Rushcutters Bay baths 1983

There is no doubt that the first impacts on the visitor as they enter the Samstag are the bright colours, especially the yellows, the reds and the blues and that sense of structure in the works conceived around shapes, squares, poles and his exquisite curves. Yet, closer inspection also reveals Smart’s desire to give these modern figures of the city a sense of life and being for no matter how repetitious the shapes may appear they could be, Smart finds way to show them ‘alive’ though use, decay, the weather and so forth. The minute variations that abound in Rushcutters Bay baths (left) are classic examples of this. (Container train in landscape (1983-4) is another on this point and its five panels hanging high in the open space between the Samtag’s upper and lower galleries are another highlight of the exhibition.)

As mentioned, there have been many imitators of the Smart style – crisp clean street- and cityscapes with bright motifs like highway signs and containers – but as Barry Pearce explains none have ever captured the stillness, the light and the geometric structure quite in the manner that Jeffrey Smart has.

Like the recently ended Fred Williams exhibition, Jeffrey Smart – Master of Stillness is a must see for any lovers of iconic Australian art as well as those affectionately connected to the land, places, buildings and people of this State.

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