Jeffrey Smart was the kind of artist who attracted fans like a pop star. There are painters who have spent their entire careers emulating his style, and civilians such as Stephen Rogers from Nowra, who is so knowledgeable about Smart’s work that he became the artist’s archivist. Once seen, Smart’s precise urban realism was not easily forgotten. Indeed, his best paintings have a haunting quality, like a movie that has been stopped before the plot has unravelled. One could wonder forever what the fat bald man near the Cahill Expressway is waiting for.
I published a monograph on Jeffrey Smart in 1990 and got to know him well. Over the years we made a series of excursions to see paintings by Piero della Francesca and Giovanni Bellini, and travelled to Naples to visit the Archeological Museum that Jeffrey had always found so inspirational.
In Rome we accompanied Justin O’Brien on his famous walking tour of artworks and monuments. On another occasion we spent a memorable day being driven around by an elderly taxi driver named Francesco who had always dreamt of being an architect but never had the chance to go to university. Instead Francesco had made a lifelong study of Roman buildings from ancient times to the present, and was eager to share his knowledge. Jeffrey had met him when he struck up a conversation during a random cab ride.
I didn’t see Jeffrey for the last few years of his life. This was partly because he stopped travelling to Australia, and I was too busy to get anywhere near Pieve a Presciano, the small Tuscan village where he and Hermes de Zan lived in a 300 year-old stone farmhouse. On the other hand it was depressing to think about Jeffrey getting old and frail. In his prime he was so quick, so clever and so wicked, that I would prefer to remember him that way. I suppose I made a semi-conscious decision not to see him when he was too ill to paint any more. I still don’t know if that was right or wrong.
Now that’s he’s gone, I remember the seriousness – reverence, might be a better word – with which Jeffrey approached artists such as Piero and Cézanne, who were his long-term idols. Robert Hughes always said that he needed an imaginary mentor looking over his shoulder, to approve of what he was doing. For Bob, that mentor was Cyril Connolly. For Jeffrey, it may well have been Cézanne. Even though his painting style was very different to the cranky master of Aix-en-Provence, there was something about Cézanne’s single-minded dedication to following his own path that Jeffrey admired without reservation.
Although some found him arrogant and lofty, I’ll always think of Jeffrey as a sincere disciple of Cézanne who never felt entirely pleased or secure when it came to his own work. Although he only ever wanted to be an artist, painting did not come easily. His output was small and each picture the result of painstaking labour in the studio. He would fuss about with a composition for months, making numerous drawings and oil sketches to test out every option. He was capable of killing a picture by lavishing too much attention upon it, but when he hit the mark a work would have an uncanny aspect that lodged in the mind’s eye and never gave up its secrets.
Jeffrey had already announced his retirement from painting when in 2011 he found a motif that rekindled his interest. That final painting is Labyrinth, which features a man in the midst of a terracotta-coloured maze that covers four fifths of the canvas. The man is actually a tiny portrait of H.G.Wells, known as the father of science fiction, but also as a futurologist who made many predictions about ‘the shape of things to come’ – the title of a novel of 1933. Jeffrey had been reading a book about Wells, when he came across a photo of an elaborate hedge. It obviously suggested a metaphor – perhaps for the twists and turns of life, or the perpetual search for meaning undertaken by a writer or artist. Within a labyrinth we seek only for a exit, and this may well have been the case for an aging painter feeling grieved by the loss of his powers. It was a powerful, touching finale from a figure who was always concerned about the impression made by his work, both now and in the future.