Jeffrey Smart (1921 – 2013)

In memory of one of the greats of Australian painting who passed away earlier this week, Jeffrey Smart. Despite Modernism’s challenge to representational imagery, and the subsequent Death of Painting discourse which questioned the relevance of painting within the contemporary art spectrum, Smart remained true to his chosen genre and medium and created some of the most iconic images of modern urban existence. 

An excerpt from “Levelling Time: The Figurative Painting of Rick Amor, Eolo Paul Bottaro and Jeffrey Smart”, a Masters Thesis by Marguerite Brown, 2012. University of Melbourne.

Jeffrey Smart, The Picnic, 1980, oil and acrylic on canvas, 69.5 x 70 cm. Published in Pearce, 2005, p. 166

Jeffrey Smart, The Picnic, 1980, oil and acrylic on canvas, 69.5 x 70 cm. Published in Pearce, 2005, p. 166

There are two historical paintings which highlight the ongoing and often complex connections between artworks and artists throughout the ages, interestingly each has been interpreted by Smart or Bottaro. Edouard Manet’s (1832 – 1883) Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863), and The Pastoral Concert (c.1509) which has recently been attributed to Titian (Tiziano Vecellio, 1488/90 – 1576) and was for many years attributed to Giorgione. The latter is understood as an allegory of poetry symbolised by the flute and water poured by two nude women, who exist in the imaginations of the two clothed men in their company.[1] The Pastoral Concert is widely acknowledged as a direct influence on the composition of Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, a claim made by Manet’s contemporary Antonin Proust who recorded Manet’s revelation to him in his memoirs.[2] There are also a number of easily recognisable visual similarities between the composition of the Titian and of the Manet. The main being its location in an idyllic landscape, and within the central figure group of three, two men are clothed in garb of their time and take no notice of the nude woman in their presence.[3] Both paintings have been considered enigmatic for their lack of clear narrative, and have given rise to much speculation.

Tiziano Vecellio, The Pastoral Concert (c. 1509) oil on canvas, 105 x 137 cm. The Louvre Museum website.

Tiziano Vecellio, The Pastoral Concert (c. 1509) oil on canvas, 105 x 137 cm. The Louvre.

Tucker notes that at the time of painting Le Déjeuner, Manet had an already established interest in incorporating motifs borrowed from the art of his predecessors.[4] This is apparent in the other well known influences found in Manet’s Le Déjeuner, such as La Tempesta (1506 – 1508) by Giorgione, particularly, as noted by Locke, in the inexplicable nudity of the female figure who in both works arrests the viewer with her gaze, and the “dreamlike lack of logic when we are led to expect a narrative.”[5] Manet’s figure group is also directly inspired by the two river gods and nymph that feature in a Renaissance engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi (created c. 1475- before 1534, fig.10), which is based on Raphael’s now lost Judgement of Paris. Manet replaces the classical idealised figures in the engraving with recognisable individuals. The men are dressed in contemporary attire and a water reed in the hand on the figure on the right is replaced with a walking cane. While to the extensive speculation of audiences and art historians, the female figure remains nude in the company of her male companions, much like The Pastoral Concert.

Edouard Manet, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1863, oil on canvas, 208 x 264.5 cm. Musee d’Orsay website.

Edouard Manet, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1863, oil on canvas, 208 x 264.5 cm. Musee d’Orsay

Marcantonio Raimondi, after Raphael, Judgement of Paris, c.1475-before 1543. Published in Tucker, 1998, p. 19

Marcantonio Raimondi, after Raphael, Judgement of Paris, c.1475-before 1543.

This seminal work by Manet illustrates the complex connections between artworks within the tradition of figurative painting, and the idiosyncratic means by which such relations are expressed within pictorial space by different artists, to achieve different ends. While numerous interpretations exist, for the purposes of this discussion I will focus on a central ambition behind Manet’s Le Déjeuner, to create a contemporaneous expression of his life and times, as noted by Tucker:

“For his painting was central to his ongoing project of making art that was beholden to his time. This meant not only choosing subjects that engaged modern life but also rendering those subjects in ways that befitted the complexity of his enterprise.”[6]

The complexity of his enterprise is increased by his use of a classically inspired composition, in an age where realism and naturalism was championed as the new avant-garde. As suggested by Marcia Pointon, Manet’s incorporation of a classically inspired female nude with men in contemporary dress transgresses the polemics of the avant-garde which evolved during the 1860s.[7] He creates a rupture with modernism through incorporating recognisable influences of the past and the familiar references to history painting, a genre which Beaudelaire and other protagonists of the avant-garde saw as no longer relevant to the age.[8] Yet paradoxically, in doing so Manet creates one of the most iconic images of the modern era.

This quotation of past artwork in the creation of “art that was beholden to his time” is an impulse that retains its currency in the contemporary work of Jeffrey Smart,. In 1980 Jeffrey Smart created The Picnic, now in a private collection. At first glance this work re-interprets the figure group composition of the Le Déjeuner and the theme of a luncheon on the grass. However closer inspection reveals more similarities to the Marcantonio Raimondi engraving of Rapheal’s Judgement of Paris, than Manet’s interpretation of it.

In The Picnic the direction of each figures’ gaze bears close similarity to that of the Raimondi engraving. The exposed muscled torso and head in profile of the male figure seated furthest from the viewer is strikingly similar to that in the engraving, in contrast to his languid, clothed counterpart in Le Dejeuner whose gaze is directed more toward the viewer, and his other companion. Smart’s figures are uniformly attired in swimwear, which allows the artist to depict the muscularity of their bodies, particularly of the male figures. This is reminiscent of the emphasised muscularity of form present within the Raimondi engraving, rather than Manet’s painting where the males are entirely clothed. Smart’s manner of stylising his figures toward a more generalised description is another similarity, which lacks the specifics of highly individualised facial features that identifies Manet’s models in Le Déjeuner such as Victorine Meurent.[9] The scale of the figures in The Picnic in relation to the rest of the composition are also comparative to the Raimondi engraving, where they are but one part of a larger composition, unlike Le Déjeuner  where the figures dominate the picture plane.

When considering the style of realism that Jeffrey Smart has developed, it follows that there would be closer links with the classical 15th century engraving by Marcatonio Raimondi, than with Manet’s interpretation of it at the birth of the Modern epoch. Smart has on numerous occasions been identified as a classicist, with his carefully arranged compositions that evoke order, harmony and stillness.[10] His work, while redolent with imagery of modern urbanised existence, is also greatly influenced by the art of the Quattrocento, where solid objects and figures are depicted in a rational space defined by a clear light, and are often devoid of emotional expression.[11] These qualities exist in The Picnic, and by returning this enigmatic composition to its roots in an image that originally depicted a classical myth, The Picnic lends weight to the perception of Smart as a modern day classicist.

Just as Manet borrowed from early compositions to express his own concerns, so too does Smart appropriate this figural composition to imbue it with his characteristic modern motifs. Smart has initiated a gender swap, exchanging the female figure on the left who addresses the viewer with her gaze in the Manet and Raimondi, with the figure of a male, while the female now stretches languorously across the grass, taking the position of the river god or dandy in the right of the earlier works. In The Picnic she holds aloft a bright red apple to her male companions, arousing connotations of Eve and the apple of temptation. In this scene the apple has not been accepted by her burly male companions, and the figure on the left hand side looks straight at the viewer, a slightly quizzical expression on his face.

This role reversal and frisson of sexual innuendo is typical of Smart’s depiction of male and female relations. As noted by Allen, sexual tension is an important theme in Smart’s early work.[12] It usually has a detached, voyeuristic quality where sex is not a manifestation or product of emotional experience. In the background a matrix of tree trunks and branches marked with patterns of sunlight form a mass behind the trio, and from somewhere within this wood rises a large water tower. An incursion of modernity on this idyllic pastoral scene exists in the monolithic tower painted bright red and white. It also exists in the radio which is centred within the trio, the antenna of which rises up in a stark vertical axis, mirroring that of the tower, and reminiscent of the reeds held aloft in the same position by the river god in Raimondi’s engraving.

These bold statements of 20th century modernity are aspects of Smart’s painting for which he is well known. While such a direct quotation of a historical artwork is less frequent within his oeuvre, it nonetheless exists in certain works, highlighting the palpable influence that the art of the past has had on Smart’s practice. Based in Tuscany and having spent many years travelling through Europe and Italy, Smart has spent much time absorbing the masterpieces of the Western art housed in Europe, and works of the Italian Renaissance have been particularly influential. Indeed, The Pastoral Concert by Titian which so inspired Le Dejeuner was much scrutinised by Smart when the artist was in his late twenties, along with Giovanni Bellini’s, Virgin Enthroned (1505), and Piero Della Francesca’s, Flagellation of Christ (1455 – 1460).[13] The Piero Della Francesca appears to have remained a favourite, and he said of this work in 1986:

“I have a copy of it in the bathroom of my villa and another pinned on the wall of my studio. It is never far from my sight. It is almost perfectly designed.”[14]

The Picnic of 1980 can be interpreted as Smart’s homage to one of the great images of the figurative tradition, lessons from which are ever present in his visual memory and awareness. With characteristic Smartian wit he has made the composition his own through swapping gender roles of the main protagonists, and introducing his bold signs of industrialised modernity.

[2] Tucker, 1998, p. 12 – 13

[3] Tucker, 1998, p. 14

[4] Tucker, 1998 p. 14

[5] Locke, 1998, p. 139

[6] Tucker, 1998, p. 26

[7] Pointon, 2008, p. 159

[8] Pointon, 2008, p. 159

[9] Locke, 1998, p. 141, note 2. Locke notes the disagreement between Manet scholars as two which of Manet’s two brothers posed in Le Dejuener. She identifies Gustave Manet as depicted alongside Manet’s favourite model Victorine Meurent.

[10]McDonald, 1990, pp. 17 – 33

[11] Allen, 2008, p. 52

[12] Allen, 2008, p. 39

[13] Capon, 1999, p. 46

[14] Capon, 1999, p. 57

Allen, 2008: Christopher Allen Jeffrey Smart: Unpublished Paintings 1940 – 2007, Melbourne: Australian Galleries Publishing, 2008

Capon, 1999: Edmund Capon Jeffrey Smart Retrospective, Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1999

Locke, 1998: Nancy Locke “Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe as a Family Romance” in Paul Hayes Tucker (Ed) Manet’s Le Dejéuner sur l’herbe Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 119-151

McDonald, 1990: John McDonald Jeffrey Smart: Paintings of the 70s and 80s Sydney: Craftsman House, 1990

Pointon, 1998: Marcia Pointon “The Fascination with this Rendezvous does not Diminish” in Paul Hayes Tucker (Ed) Manet’s Le Dejéuner sur l’herbe Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 152 – 166

Tucker, 1998: Paul Hayes Tucker “Making Sense of Edouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe” in Paul Hayes Tucker (Ed) Manet’s Le Dejéuner sur l’herbe Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 1 – 37

6 thoughts on “Jeffrey Smart (1921 – 2013)

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