smartAs any art lover in Australia will know, the extraordinary Australian painter Jeffrey Smart passed away in his adopted home of Tuscany on June 20 this year (2013).

Here is an interview I conducted with Smart on February 20, 2002, when he was 80 years old. The interview took place at the Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, where his work was to be included in an exhibition called Parallel Visions, which explored the connections between some of Australia’s most prominent artists. In the exhibition, Smart was paired with John Brack.

Artwriter: Your teaming with John Brack? Is it appropriate?

Jeffrey Smart: Well, I suppose so, yes. We’re both neat painters. We both have tidy edges. I’ll have to read Barry’s thing (the essay in the catalogue by curator Barry Pearce). When one’s a painter, you don’t think about the implications of what you’re painting, you’re just painting something you want to paint and it’s a subject you like doing. It all looks different when all the pictures are put together. Then the critics get to work.

You shared with Brack an interest in clean edges, and also in geometry?

Yes.

Did you know him?

Yes, I did know him. He came up to Sydney for a while to watch Justin O’Brien, who was at Cranbook. He was the art master, and he was completely brilliant with children. He managed to get children to paint the most wonderful things. So the headmaster of Geelong Grammar, or was it Melbourne Grammar (where Brack taught art), sent John up to study with Justin. But of course that was ridiculous because Justin didn’t know. He was just an instinctive, outward-going teacher. He had no theories about child art at all. Whereas John did. John was more an intellectual. Justin was not an intellectual at all in that way. ┬áSo I think John was just confused by seeing the way Justin handled a class of children. He just was appalled, I think.

So Brack had quite set theories about child art?

Oh, yes. John was an intellectual. Very intelligent man. Not that Justin O’Brien was stupid. He was a more, um, romantic creature. Romantic as opposed to being classical.

Did you get on well with Brack?

I think so. I didn’t know him terribly well, but I always liked him and liked talking with him. But I didn’t meet him much, because he was in Melbourne and I was in Sydney.

You have had your recent retrospective exhibition at the AGNSW, another at the S.H. Ervin Gallery, you recently received an Order of Australia and an honorary doctorate from the University of Sydney, and your art is very much in demand here in Australia. Do you feel your ties with Australia are strengthening, and would you contemplate a return here?

I like to be in Italy, I like the Italian lifestyle. But my ties with Australia have always been terrifically strong, always. They’re not strengthening at all, because they’ve always been strong.

So you’ll stay in Italy?

I’ve lived abroad for too long now. I’ve lived over there for 50 years I suppose. I adore coming to Australia. I love it. I wish it wasn’t so far. If only it was where Singapore is. It’s just that extra bit that makes it so far away.

Do you speak Italian?

I speak it, yes. But mind you, I speak it like an Italian greengrocer. You know, I speaka like this. (But) people understand. I can go to dinner parties … I enjoy speaking Italian. I feel I’m slightly different in my personality and my behaviour. When I’m thinking in Italian, I behave differently. I had a great friend, Sylvia Wertheim. She was from Washington and her husband was from Philadelphia, and they lived in Greece. The first child as born in America, the second child was born in Paris, and the third girl was born in Greece. So she had three children who all spoke English, French and Greek. And she could see when they played, their deportment and their way of playing was different. And if they became too aggressive or whatever it was, she’d call out and say ‘children, start playing in Italian’. Or she’d call out and say, ‘start playing in English’. She realised that the language rules our thinking and we don’t rule the language, which I think is true.

And when you’re thinking in Italian do you become ….?

I think slightly differently.

Does it affect your painting?

No. Absolutely no connection with painting. The brain works in completely different compartments.

When you’re speaking or thinking in Italian do you become more flamboyant or …?

No, no, no, no. It’s nothing to do with flamboyance. When I’m thinking in Italian you become more logical. Well, Italian’s a more logical Latin language. It’s much more logical.

You studied with Fernand Leger. What are your memories of him?

The best story I could tell you is not so much the times in Paris, because he would only come in once a week, at the end of the week. He had his mistress who was doing most of the teaching, and then the master would come in at the end of the week and give us a criticism. But the thing that touched me most was many years later. A few years ago, I was driving through the south of France. I came near Biot, which is a town in the south of France where there’s a big Leger museum. I got to the museum and I was very anxious to see it because I like his work so much, and just as we were arriving it was lunchtime and the gallery was closing. And I said, but you can’t close. I said, are you closing for lunch? And they said, no, no, it’s a half day. We won’t open again today. And I said, oh, crikey, listen I’ve come all the way up from Tuscany to come here to see this museum and I’ve got to move on. Oh, they said, we’re very sorry. I said, but I was a student at the school. I studied with Leger. Oh, they said, did you? Oh, they said, please. Then they sent the word around, all the doors opened, people turned up and it was that sort of tradition of the French respect for the teaching and the whole thing opened up. And I’ve never seen such respect. They said, a student of the master’s here — ooh, God. And I was given the royal treatment, absolutely.

What was Leger’s mistress’s name?

I can’t remember. I think it was a name like Miranda, but I’m probably very wrong there.

Was Leger very interested in machinery?

Oh, yes. He was a beautiful designer of pictures. He’s a bit under-rated at the moment, Leger.

Did you ever run across Giorgio de Chirico?

In his old age. I never met him. But I was sitting in a very beautiful coffee shop in Rome, I think it’s called the Cafe Greco, and it’s near the Piazza di Spagna, and I went in for my morning coffee, and there seated right near me was Giorgio de Chrico with his wife. And he looked rather like a very distinguished English vicar. He didn’t look at all Greek.

You didn’t feel moved to say hello?

Oh no. He looked too important. No, I couldn’t go over there and speak to him.

Would this have been in the 1960s?

Yes. (Smart said he and de Chirico had one connection – that they showed at the same gallery in Rome.) My art dealer told me that the one obsession that de Chirico had was money, money, money, money.

Was he churning them out a bit?

Yes, he was churning them out. Copying out old works, too. His best work of course was the early work. But I’m so keen on him, I even went to Volos in Greece where he was born. He came from Volos which is a fairly big city in northern Greece, and his first training was at the art school in Athens, which is inadequate training. It would be much worse than going to art school in Adelaide.

Really?

Oh, yes (with a shudder).

What about Morandi?

I never met Morandi, but Brett Whiteley and Keith Looby did. Lucky things. I wish I’d done that. But I painted a picture the day he died, and put his name in the picture.

Magritte?

You can get very sick of Magritte.

As a person or a painter?

I’ve never met him. But you could get very sick of Magritte. It’s gimmicky, gimmicky, gimmick. It is a sort of gentle surrealism, but you shouldn’t see too much Magritte, really.

When I interviewed Edmund Capon last year, he said you were a bit secretive about your sketchbooks. Have you got plans to show them?

No. Well, some of them are so bad I don’t think they should be exhibited. That’s all. It’s just they’re not good enough. They were never meant to be exhibited. They were just notes.

You have said if you can draw the human body you can draw anything.

This is true.

And do you return to life drawing?

Yes, yes, yes. I still try and get models.

Do you still work every day?

Well, I’m not getting any work … (he meant, I’m not getting any work done here. He was a bit put off by his round of media interviews) … I want to get back. I’m away two weeks this time. And I’m in the middle of a nice period. I’ve got about three pictures to work on. What I’m suffering from is frustration. I can’t work.

Did you bring any artist materials with you?

No, I’m not that sort of artist, no. I’m a studio painter.

You have sometimes changed or reworked your paintings. (At his retrospective at the AGNSW, he famously took a brush and paint to a canvas that had been privately loaned to the show, to “liven up” the colour.) Have you done any of that here?

Well, all oil paintings sink a bit. It sinks into the canvas. It depends on the quality of the canvas. But you have to keep feeding oil paintings. Just like you feed horses. You’ve got to look after them. They dry out.

Have you had to do any in this exhibition?

Oh, no. Because the restorers here at the gallery know more about painting conditions than I do. They’re experts and I’m not.

Would you enter the Archibald Prize?

I can’t enter the Archibald Prize because you have to be resident in Australia.

Is that the one thing keeping you from it?

No. I wouldn’t go in for any art competition ever anyway. I don’t believe in those things. Imagine if I got third prize, it would be just so awful, wouldn’t it? It depends on the judges. And the judges could be very fallacious.

Postscript:

After our interview, Smart noticed some cracks in the dark shadows of his painting, Truck and Trailer Approaching a City. He went up close, peered at the painting, and passed a licked finger over part of the stricken area. “I will have to show the Director (his good friend, Edmund Capon),” he said. Capon was hovering about at the time. “Well, we’re not having you touching it, that’s for sure,” Edmund parried, remembering Smart’s impromptu touching up of his painting in his retrospective.

Elizabeth Fortescue, October 24, 2013