Jeffrey Smart (1921-2013) is one of Australia’s most recognised painters, but not because he paints identifiably Australian subjects or locations. Smart has a consistent fascination with the present day, and has always found the contemporary world beautiful, whatever his locations.
The scenes that Smart chooses are usually mundane — parks, bus stops, expressways, petrol-stations, traffic barriers — we know them intimately, they are all too familiar, he says: ‘I love painting more than anything else, and I love painting things I consider beautiful’.
In almost all of his paintings, whatever the apparent content, certain formal qualities will be present. Smart was absorbed in explorations of shape, balance, colour and, above all, light. Through relationships of form, he searches for a stillness at the centre of human connections with urban landscapes — what makes Smart’s paintings so disturbing is the sense that time has stilled to capture just this one moment.
Jeffrey Smart ‘The traveller’
Smart introduced to his work a rather stolid gentleman in a dark suit who would subsequently recur in his work as a kind of everyman. The traveller 1973 (illustrated) is a particularly strong example of Smart’s use of this anonymous figure, the traveller alighting from the bus is a ‘type’, a carrier of stories.
The man’s isolation is stressed by the way he is dwarfed and boxed in between two buses. The bus livery on both leads the eye directly to the traveller, the diagonals squeezing and framing him between the enclosed space, even repeated in the angle of his briefcase. The block of anonymous housing apartments behind with their repeating balconies continue the claustrophobic composition.
No wonder the traveller emerging from one bus only to be confronted by his reflection in the bus opposite, poignantly suggests the lost, dislocated existence of humanity in the modern world.
DELVE DEEPER: The life and art of Jeffrey Smart