On June 26, 2013, the funeral of Australian artist Jeffrey Smart was held at the Pieve of San Pietro Apostolo in Pieve a Presciano, not far from the home near Arezzo where the painter and his companion, Hermes De Zan, had lived for almost 50 years. Describing the funeral, a long-time acquaintance of Smart’s, Suzanne Pitcher, observed that ‘many, many people brought flowers to the church, and they were all placed around the baptismal font at the entrance, as there was no other room… Hermes had meticulously decorated the church himself with huge bouquets of white flowers and greenery everywhere. It was truly spectacular, and in such a small and intimate place, the combination of the flowers and the incense became quite intoxicating.’
The extraordinary life of this Australian icon, known for his paintings of the urban landscape, began on July 26, 1921, when Jeffrey Edson Smart was born in the South Australian city, Adelaide. He attributed the beginning of his interest in art to a trip to England with his parents when he was very young. Between 1937 and 1941, unable to study architecture at university because his family could not afford it, Smart attended the South Australian School of Art, where he trained as an art teacher. He taught in several schools until, in 1948, he made a long-awaited return voyage overseas by working his passage on a cargo ship. In Paris, he studied with the French artist and forerunner of pop art Fernand Léger and cultivated his lasting admiration for Paul Cézanne.
In 1950, Smart returned to Adelaide and in 1951 moved to Sydney, where for the next 10 years he worked as an art critic for The Daily Telegraph, a drawing teacher at the National Art School, a presenter on the popular children’s ABC radio programme The Argonauts and later Children’s Hour on ABC-TV. At the same time, he continued to paint and to save money so that he could live abroad on a permanent basis.
An unrepentant representative painter in a period when abstract expressionism and impressionism were in vogue, today Smart is known for a style called precisionism. His subject matter was the city and its industries, factories, roads, airports, ports, apartment blocks, road signs and fences. He included people in his compositions only to provide a sense of scale. Whilst geometric and structural, his canvases are also brightly coloured, a combination that projects an eerie sense of timelessness and stillness. During an especially prolific period in the 1960s, he produced two of his most famous works, Coogee Baths (1961) and his celebrated Cahill Expressway (1962), starkly depicting a blue-suited, one-armed man standing under a concrete underpass in Sydney. At the time, he was also invited to show in international group exhibitions in London, first at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1961 and then at the Tate in 1963, the same year he moved to Europe, settling in Tuscany, where he bought and restored an eighteenth-century farmhouse called Posticcia Nuova.
A widely travelled, gregarious man with sky-blue eyes and a quick—if, on occasion, caustic—wit, Smart was a bon vivant who loved classical music and his pug dogs. He was, however, above all a disciplined artist who dedicated a fixed time every day to his work. A perfectionist, he painted slowly and meticulously, producing only a handful of pieces every couple of years. He painted and over-painted, believing no picture was ever truly finished, only ‘abandoned’—he even retouched some of his paintings many years after they were supposedly ‘abandoned’.
In 2011, by then confined to a wheelchair, Smart announced his retirement. It was, however, short-lived as he soon became fascinated by the subject of what would be his last work, Labyrinth (2012). The year before, another of his works, Autobahn in the Black Forest II (1979–80), sold for more than one million Australian dollars. Now, after his death, the value of his works will probably continue to soar.
During the funeral service, a representative of the Australian Ambassador in Rome read a message from the now former Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard. But, in Pitcher’s words, ‘the eulogy of the priest, the mayor of the town (wearing her sash of authority) and a friend were the true tributes to Jeffrey, as they all knew him well and each took a different aspect of his adventurous life. The priest and the mayor talked about the unfolding story of his life in a small Italian village whilst his friend recounted the very humorous but cynical side of his character.’
Without doubt, Smart would have liked the farewell. The last piece of music was from his favourite opera, Wagner’s Parsifal, and, Pitcher noted, it seemed fitting, in the priest’s words, as a way forward ‘for Jeffrey to start another life.’
Wherever that new life may be, many hope he will continue to paint there.