Jeffrey Smart: a surrealist visionary

Bon viveur of Australian art, who has died aged 91, showed us loneliness and the grandeur of the modern freeway overpass

Gallery: the art of Jeffrey Smart

The passing at 91 of Frank Jeffrey Edson Smart, otherwise known as Jeffrey Smart, the artist, surrealist visionary and bon viveur of Australian art, marks the loss of one of the country's idiosyncratic greats. With an ambition to become an architect that turned into a career as a painter, Smart's work was marked by its singular vision, a blend of modern surrealist space and scale, the grandeur of the modern freeway overpass, the forlorn shapes of roadside signage and lonely, little figures that became his trademark.

Born in Adelaide in 1921, Smart trained at the South Australian School of Art from 1937 to 1941, before studying in Paris at the Académie Montmartre with Fernand Léger in 1949, then returning to Australia. Working as an art critic for The Daily Telegraph in the early 1950s led to probably his most public early career success as the creator, under the pseudonym Phidias, of an art program for ABC radio, and then later, television.

As a gay man, Smart's career prospects were problematic in the masculine world of expressionist Australian art in the early 1960s, and so in 1964, at the age of 43, he left Australia permanently for Italy where he lived with his partner Ermes de Zan in Arezzo for many years.

To claim Smart's work as Australian when so much of it was based on Italian scenes and subjects is to recognise the international flavour of much of the best of Australian art. Smart was a mid-century leader in shaking off the parochial shackles of what Robert Hughes called Australia's "buckeye enthusiasts" and their close-minded acolytes. And it's not as though Smart's early work did not indicate his future direction. One of his most celebrated early paintings The Cahill Expressway from 1962 is a scene reminiscent of Georgio de Chirico, but it is startling in its own right for its recognisability as an Sydney scene and doubly so for its timeless quality.

Smart was a prodigious artist with more than 50 solo shows in Sydney and Melbourne beginning in 1957, including inclusion in group exhibitions in London at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1961 and at the Tate in 1963. His paintings, with their patina of realism but imbued with melancholy, have long been popular with the visitors to Australia's art museums: paintings such as The Dome (1979) and Portrait of Margaret Olley in The Louvre Museum (1994-95) at the Art Gallery of NSW, The Cahill Expressway at the National Gallery of Victoria and The Reservoir, Centennial Park (1988) at the Queensland Art Gallery, are draw-card attractions whenever they are hung. A major touring retrospective Master of Stillness: Jeffrey Smart Paintings 1940-2011, currently on show at TarraWarra Museum of Art, is but the latest in a series of major career surveys.

Although now much venerated in Australia, Smart's work wasn't always as popular. Indeed, until the late 1990s, while Smart enjoyed a dedicated collector following with his Sydney and Melbourne dealers, his paintings didn't attract major interest in the auction market. With some high-profile sales at the end of that decade, Smart's work was catapulted into the same rarefied orbit as work by Australian modernists such as Albert Tucker, Charles Blackman, Sidney Nolan and Brett Whiteley. Today, Smart's work graces many auction catalogue covers and his 1979-1980 painting Autobahn in The Black Forest II sold at Deutscher & Hackett in Melbourne in 2011 for $1,020,000.

While Smart returned regularly to Australia, he maintained his Italian residency until his death. Perhaps things had changed back home but his life was overseas and his 1996 book Not Quite Straight: A Memoir amply illustrated his ambivalent attitude to his homeland. What remains of great artists is their work and although Smart's paintings depicted the darkening skies, parched concrete and stark forests of Europe, his work maintains a strange and poetic universal vision.

Andrew Frost

The GuardianTramp

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