Sunday, March 31, 2013

Getting Smart

Tar 8 with water bottle (2013) by Pants

In the film Master of Stillness, Clive James speculates that the painter Jeffrey Smart chose to spend most of his life abroad because Australian grandees seemed inexplicably compelled to annex the arts for their nation-building agenda. That feels true. Australian artists, writers and filmmakers were then, as they are now, expected to contribute to national identity by 'telling our stories' - as if stories were not universal. James says of this faux earnestness that his friend is 'above all that'. 

There may well have been more pressing reasons for Smart's, er, decampment. His wittily named and erudite autobiography Not Quite Straight gives no hint that he was conscious of a debilitating imperative to paint only Australian subjects - although, as a painter of urban life, he did just that. He had left Australia as a young unknown. I suspect that he wanted what so many of us who leave for an indefinite period want - to see what the rest of the world is like.

Smart is an artist of uncommon discipline and focus but also clearly one with a great social capacity and keen self-awareness. He appears never to have been particularly troubled by his discovery of his own homosexuality, unlike his friend and contemporary Michael Shannon. In the cloistered Australia of the 1930s, he had no way of knowing that he was not alone in the world but he does seem to have had an uncanny faith in his own ability to navigate its hostility. 

There is one ominous note in Not Quite Straight that suggests a very good reason why he might want to leave Australia. He was a sexually active gay man in the 1940s, when homosexuals were routinely and savagely abused. He was also an art teacher who was having regular sex with one of his students. He had the horrendous experience of seeing a friend in similar circumstances arrested. That friend was jailed and also flogged. That's right. This was in Australia, after World War 2. Where would you go? Why Italy, of course.

This is a very roundabout introduction to a review. But this is one of my 'reviews that is not really a review'. A few days ago I drove to Healesville - four hours from Larrikin's End - to see Master of Stillness: Jeffrey Smart Paintings 1940 - 2011 at the TarraWarra Museum of Art. 

The TarraWarra experience is a discombobulating one. TarraWarra Estate is one of the new breed of Australian winery that combines food, wine and the arts. They're all a long way down the road to nowhere. They all have those vast, clattery restaurants serving tiny dollops of putty-shaped food on enormous plates finished with drizzles of this and sprinkles of that and a teaspoon of wine in a glass the size of a bird bath. Some of them stage huge concerts featuring people you thought were dead and some have art galleries.

When you're in the middle of a high-risk fire area and intend to display millions of dollars worth of things that don't need much coaxing to ignite, I suppose 'bunker' is the only real answer to the design question. The TarraWarra Museum of Art fits that description to perfection. It's more mortuary than museum. The sense of time being suspended persists throughout my visit. The building, set between gentle rolls of grapevines, screams incongruity in its concrete lumpenness. And inside, the torpor continued.

I waited several minutes while two people behind a counter stared into open space rather than ask me if I wanted anything, like the opportunity to buy a ticket perhaps. There were no catalogues (sold out) and no souvenir ticket for gluing into the diary - now that was annoying. Even worse, there were no postcards. It's hard to imagine an easier way to make money than to produce postcards of an exhibition that someone has made a 600-kilometre round trip to attend. I'd have bought five at $2 and I'm meaner than a billionaire sitting down to complete a tax return. Australian galleries don't seem to have cottoned on to this business opportunity. They have postcards to be sure, but they're invariably of artworks that you haven't seen. It can't be a copyright issue as I've never struck it anywhere else. I would have bought a catalogue as well. Art books are my indulgence. So there's another $50 unbanked. It's available from Booktopia but I'm not in the zone now, am I.

It's a shame about the catalogue because I'm in the habit of referring to this useful device when writing my recollections. Fortunately, John McDonald has published this excellent essay in the Sydney Morning Herald and this is not really a review, remember. (The exhibition finishes tomorrow, and most of you don't live in Victoria or even Australia so there wouldn't be much point). If you find yourself insatiable for more Smarties you can also munch on this study guide from University of South Australia.

Jeffrey Smart paints industrial bleakness with an intriguingly apolitical sensibility. Rather than critique the utilitarian designlessness of post-war urbanisation, he endows it with a beauty that it does not seek for itself by simply painting it beautifully. In the film (Master of Stillness), which is conveniently on rotation at TarraWarra, he says he loves the messiness of Italy. At the same time he seems compelled to fashion some order from it. In another life he might have been a worker at a tip sorting bottles into colour categories and lining them up by height. There's a strong sense in his paintings, as in the photographs of Diane Arbus, that without him these scenes would go unnoticed. He says, 'we should paint the things around us', which is why you will see exquisitely executed satellite dishes displayed prominently on his canvases.

Clive James notes,


'He was painting the future, the country we live in now. And somebody once said, eventually everyone will live in the Smart country, in Smart Land. Well that was a good guess and the world now looks like what Jeffrey was painting back in the mid-sixties in Italy.'

The overwhelming impression you get from this retrospective is one of quiet accomplishment. In the film, Smart is shown painting his last work, Labyrinth. Once it was completed and at the grand age of 91, he retired. The opportunity to see this painting more than justified my 600-kilometre round trip. It also gave rise to a fine example of what my gallery pal Ms O'Dyne and I have dubbed 'Look Beryl' moments.  A 'Look Beryl' moment involves the overhearing of an unusually idiotic observation.

Our most memorable 'Look Beryl' moment occurred at the Napoleon exhibition last year. Mesmerised by a beautiful china cup and saucer ensemble accompanied by the designer's drawings, a woman says to her friend, 'Look Beryl, they actually designed the set before they made it.'The Beryl exchange in front of Labyrinth went like this, 'Look Beryl it says 2011. This must have been one of the last paintings he did before he died.' He's dead? I thought. No one told me.

And of course he isn't. The misunderstanding can only have been due to misleading captioning. A large sign in the entry reads Jeffrey Smart Paintings 1940-2011. Another  mortality metaphor. I was rather glad to get out into the fresh air and discover that the world hadn't, in fact, ended. 

At the end of Not Quite Straight, Smart recounts an incident while buying tickets at the Sydney Opera house,

'The girl asked for my credit card, so I slid it across. As she was recording the details she exclaimed, 'You're not the Jeffrey Smart!' I confess I felt a lovely, warm surge of ego-fruit when I said, with easily assumed pomposity, 'Yes, I am indeed the Jeffrey Smart,' and we both went into fits of laughter.

That is the voice of someone who has lived, and is still living I'm pleased to add, an impeccably examined life.