Curator Barry Pearce Discusses Jeffrey Smart Survey Pt. 2

Curator Barry Pearce Discusses Jeffrey Smart Survey Pt. 2
Jeffrey Smart "Morning practice, Baia" 1969
(© Jeffrey Smart)

On the 21st of December the TarraWarra Musuem of Art launched a major survey exhibition featuring over forty paintings from one of Australia’s most important living painters: Jeffrey Smart.  Produced in partnership with the Samstag Museum of Art in Adelaide, Master of Stillness: Jeffrey Smart paintings 1940 – 2011 presents an extraordinary opportunity to experience a veritable feast of iconic Smart images in one place.

At the age of ninety Smart has recently retired from painting, and for the first time it is possible to define his career from beginning to end. The artist was awarded the Order of Australia in 2001 for services to visual arts, and in 2011 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of South Australia.

Jeffrey Smart created an entirely new vernacular of modern painting. He confronted a brave new universe of technology and architecture and declared that it was beautiful. He became its poet,” says exhibition curator Barry Pearce.

To find out more about Jeffrey Smart and his work, Nicholas Forrest, Executive Editor of Artinfo Australia, caught up with curator Barry Pearce prior to the opening of the exhibition.  In part two of this interview, Mr. Pearce discusses the develop of Smart's oeuvre and alludes to what visitors to the exhibition will experience.

Is there a clear progression in Smart's oeuvre that would suggest a development of style or theme?

Smart has stuck to his guns admirably, unwilling to follow the fickleness of fashion, changing style and content every five minutes for the exigency of commerce or a shallow taste for 'newness'. Having said that, the chronological path of the retrospective shows a growing strength of colour compared to the tonalist quality of his earliest work (as with the 1951-63 Sydney period, or more obvious with earlier Adelaide paintings). One could relate this to a transition from the monochromatic palette imposed on him by his teacher Ivor Hele, and then later his reversion to the French palette of another teacher Marie Tuck. But there was more to it than that. From the time he settled in Italy in 1964 his palette became progressively more emboldened by brilliant new industrial design manifested in Italian traffic signage and the age of plastics. Moreover his early Sydney paintings preserve signs of the impasto painterliness of his Adelaide work that slowly became smoothed out into a skin, or carapace, over the following decades, as his intellectual focus on constructive geometry appeared to repress all signs of emotional gesture, and the source of ecstasy that spurred him to paint the picture in the first place (a similar development happened to Poussin). He has often quoted T.S.Eliot's declaration that one must concentrate on the form alone, allowing any emotional undercurrent to percolate through of its own accord. But then in the last 10 to 15 years Smart seemed to want to recover a memory of some of the old matiére, or texture, fabricating the effect by painting on coarser canvas.

Many of Smart's paintings embody the same, now iconic style and theme. Is there a particular trait or characteristic that differentiates one painting from another?

Every painting is a different inflection, or nuance of design, or challenge of composition from its predecessor, as is every fugue by Bach, or symphony by Hayden, or sonnet by Shakespeare. Anyone who asks that question because they cannot actually tell the difference, or are bored by subtlety, or simply not interested to work it out, is not worthy of being answered.

What can visitors expect to experience with this exhibition?

A life's journey celebrating the beauty of what we thought was ugly or ordinary. Annihilation of the tyranny of time through the unexpected intrigue of each moment. The significance of a painting career over seven decades straddling two continents, the Old World and the New, the real and the strange, and bringing it to a logical resolution.

Part one of the interview can be viewed here