Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Smart Exhibition @ TarraWarra

Container Train in Landscape
The Jeffrey Smart exhibition at TarraWarra (near Yarra Glen) is still on until the end of March, and it is well worth a visit. At this time of year it is a pleasant day out: enjoy a drive through the Yarra Valley, visit the exhibition, have lunch at the gallery's café or at one of the many other places in the area where they cater for the tourists from the Big Smoke.

Jeffrey Smart with his last documented painting, "Labyrinth", 2011
Jeffrey Smart announced his retirement from painting last year - he is ninety years old, wheelchair bound and rather frail. He still lives in the Tuscan villa where he has spent the last forty years with his partner Ermes De Zan.
Container Train in Landscape (detail)
The works on display in the Gallery's three main rooms are nominally divided into three periods, covering the painter's sojourn in Sydney from 1951, Rome in the 1960s and Tuscany from the 1970s on.

He is an Adelaide boy, having grown up during the Great Depression in a small flat on South Terrace, after his parents had to rent out their suburban house due to straitened circumstances. From the flat he could look out at alleyways and back lanes, rooftops and little side streets: an urban landscape that fascinated him. The geometry of the buildings spoke to him, and he loved to explore these alleys and laneways with his friends after school.
Yarragon Siding
He became an art teacher because his parents could not afford to send him to University to study architecture. However, his fascination with the composition and geometry of buildings, streetscapes and industrial areas have made him a master of the urban landscape. His works emphasize clean lines and precise attention to detail. Chevrons, parallel lines and geometric curves are features of his paintings. The cubist patterns of apartment blocks are complemented by the coloured squares and circles of road signs at construction sites and airports, and his portraits are set in those backgrounds rather than the more conventional setting one would expect of a portrait.
Portriat of Clive James
 "Portrait of Clive James", for example, shows a vast expanse of bright yellow corrugated steel in the foreground, dwarfing a small, distant figure showing above the parapet of an overpass above. Clive James or Franz Kafka, who can tell?  Similarly, "Alma Mahler Feeding the Birds", shows a tiny figure in a red coat, who may or may not be Alma Mahler, standing behind a railing on what appears to be an elevated roadway, while seagulls wheel in the foreground.
Alma Mahler Feeding the Birds
David Malouf is shown at an industrial site, wearing overalls and holding an orange fuel pipe. With the line of windows in a background building rising out of the top of his head, his figure forms a vertical that intersects with the horizontal line of a row of multicoloured containers, while the fuel pipe describes a parabolic curve in the foreground.
Portrait of David Malouf
Many of the paintings have figures in them, but there is always a certain sense of isolation, that reminds me of Edward Hopper's work. The figure is often that of the painter himself (he has a bit of an Alfred Hitchcock silhouette!) In one painting, he has given his friend Bruce Beresford a cameo role, standing outside a row of garages, wearing a bright orange overall. I say "cameo role" advisedly, because his paintings have a theatrical quality - they give the impression of a stage set, with an actor hitting his mark. He likes a dramatic sky: looming grey clouds of enhance the theatrical effect, but at the same time they serve to focus attention on the structures below.
Bruce Beresford
I recognised Cahill Expressway, which has been one of the showpieces of the NGV these fifty years: a portly figure in a blue suit standing near the expressway on-ramp.
Cahill Expressway
 Whenever I go to see an exhibition, here or in another Australian city, something on loan from the NGV is always included. It just makes me grateful, yet again, that we live in Melbourne where we have unlimited, free access to such a wonderfully representative collection as that of the NGV. Whatever painter, school or genre is your cup of tea, you can go and enjoy it down St Kilda Road any time you like. Free of charge. Take the kids. Better than Disney.
Morning Practice, Baia
Another work that I liked is Morning practice, Baia, depicting a man on his back, balancing a cube on this feet. Sunlight floods the picture, which is, like many of Smart's works, almost surreal.
Container Train in Landscape
My favourite painting in that show was Container Train In Landscape, on five panels, each four feet long. This picture's home is the foyer of the Arts Centre, where I am sure most of  our members have seen it many times, but it was an unexpected pleasure to see it on a long white wall all by itself. The verticals of the gum trees reminded me of Fred Williams' work, but the bright primary colours of the carriages is pure Jeffrey Smart.

Labyrinth (2011), a metre-square picture, is Jeffrey Smart's last documented painting and is exhibited here for the first time.  It shows a vast stone labyrinth that stretches to the horizon, with a solitary figure standing in it. It evokes the painter's vision of that maze of back streets that he found so fascinating as a child. This return to the childhood experience that started him on his creative journey, may well be a fitting full stop to the Jeffrey Smart oeuvre.

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