Pre­par­ing for an ex­hi­bi­tion of Jef­frey Smart’s works, his part­ner of 40 years, Ermes De Zan, re­calls their glory days to­gether in Italy. By Su­san Chen­ery

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

On ev­ery hill­top is a vil­lage with its fortress and soar­ing bell tower. Rows of cy­press trees lead to an­cient stone farm­houses and great vil­las with statue-strewn gar­dens. It is a clas­si­cal land­scape, al­most un­changed since it in­spired the peer­less artists of the Re­nais­sance; the long, golden sum­mer twi­light, the rich earth and what it yields as sea­sons change.

Jef­frey Smart made his home at La Pos­tic­cia Nuova, a farm­house in the heart of Tus­cany, in 1971. The house, wrote Clive James, is a “mas­ter­piece, con­tin­u­ally cre­ated and cared for by its padrone and his gifted com­pan­ion Ermes De Zan”.

Al­though Smart turned his back on the pain­terly beauty around him to paint, in­stead, blighted ur­ban land­scapes, this is the place that nur­tured him. In the pri­vacy of this val­ley he could find el­e­va­tion as an artist and reach for his own kind of sub­lime. “He had his own ideas about what was aes­thetic and what was an in­ter­est­ing com­po­si­tion,” says De Zan.

Piero della Francesca’s fres­coes are in churches all around here; paint­ing in the same lu­mi­nous light, Smart was in­flu­enced by that painter’s math­e­mat­i­cal pre­ci­sion. As his friend David Malouf has writ­ten, he pre­sented the man-made ob­jects of to­day with “Piero’s su­per­nat­u­ral glow”.

These days La Pos­tic­cia Nuova is quiet, the force of Smart’s per­son­al­ity gone since his death in 2013. “The whole place is geared to big din­ner par­ties and be­ing full of friends,” says De Zan sadly. He lives alone there, with his 14 pea­cocks and the over­whelm­ing mem­o­ries that creep through the rooms. “It is not the sort of house to be alone in — it is too big. ” Con­se­quently, De Zan is sell­ing up, though he’s not yet sure where he will go.

We meet in the cafe at the Art Gallery of NSW in Syd­ney a day be­fore he is due to fly back to Italy and where, in­ci­den­tally, he is ap­palled at the way one of Smart’s paint­ings has been hung in a down­stairs ex­hi­bi­tion room.

He is tall and pa­tri­cian, with punc­til­ious pro­nun­ci­a­tion, yet there is some­thing cheru­bic about him, with his white hair and ruddy cheeks. There is also a pal­pa­ble sad­ness of great loss. He is a dig­ni­fied man, hu­mor­ous, but his eyes well up as he re­calls the kalei­do­scope of mo­ments that make up a life to­gether. De Zan, now 68, and Smart first met when the for­mer was pass­ing through Rome in 1973 on his way to take up a schol­ar­ship to study art at Yale Univer­sity. He was in­vited to cof­fee with artist Justin O’Brien. “And Jef­frey turned up in his white raw silk suit. We said ‘hello’ and that was it.”

Two years later De Zan re­ceived a letter “out of the blue”. Smart had a com­mis­sion from ar­chi­tect Guil­ford Bell for a grand-scale mu­ral for a “sym­phonic” house in Mel­bourne, and he needed an as­sis­tant.

The com­mis­sion fell through but Smart in­vited De Zan to come to Italy for his sum­mer hol­i­days; he had an empty stu­dio and was re­cov­er­ing from a dif­fi­cult end to a long re­la­tion­ship. When Smart col­lected De Zan from the duomo in the Tus­can town of Borgo San Se­pol­cro on June 13, 1975, it was the be­gin­ning, he wrote, “of the hap­pi­est time in my life”.

De Zan was born in north­ern Italy but grew up in coun­try Vic­to­ria. He re­mem­bers that first sum­mer. “It was hot, we had the log­gia open, those glo­ri­ous deep blue skies, and [na­tional tele­vi­sion broad­caster] Rai was trans­mit­ting live from Bayreuth — the Ring Cy­cle was com­ing through. It was ab­so­lutely fan­tas­tic, amaz­ing.”

But even though the spare stu­dio had been set up with easels and ta­bles, it in­stead be­gan to fill with gar­den­ing equip­ment and tools. De Zan had be­gun his trans­for­ma­tion of the grounds of La Pos­tic­cia Nuova.

At the end of two months he had to re­turn to Dart­mouth Col­lege in Hanover in the US, where he was then as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of fine art. Smart was de­lighted when let­ters came com­plain­ing New Hamp­shire was too waspy and cold. Though he pre­tended to sym­pa­thise, he prayed “for a re­ally cold win­ter over there”.

They had Christ­mas in Lon­don, where Smart, then 54, went all out to im­press him. “It was re­ally quite mar­vel­lous,” De Zan re­calls. By Jan­uary he had de­cided to re­sign from Dart­mouth. “Jef­frey said, ‘Bring all your fans and tea sets.’ ” So, De Zan loaded his be­long­ings on to a freighter and ar­rived in Genoa in July. This was the start of a 40-year re­la­tion­ship and these would be the golden years for Jef­frey Smart. Smart didn’t be­come a full-time painter un­til he was in his 40s. He had drawn and painted since his mid­dle-class child­hood in Ade­laide and had stud­ied at the South Aus­tralian School of Arts and Crafts and with Fer­nand Leger in Paris. But he be­lieved the art mar­ket to be so “capri­cious, that it is fool­ish to rely on sell­ing a paint­ing. I have al­ways found it dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand why some­one would ac­tu­ally pay real money for one of my paint­ings,” he wrote in his mem­oir Not Quite Straight.

He found his sig­na­ture style with the cel­e­brated Cahill Ex­press­way in 1962 and moved to Italy per­ma­nently in 1963, when he was 42. “I think he loved the Ital­ian en­joy­ment of life,” says De Zan. “Italy is a very, very ac­com­mo­dat­ing place to be.” Later, as we walk to­wards the bru­tal con­crete ar­chi­tec­ture of the Syd­ney CBD, he will re­mark: “Part of the rea­son Jef­frey lived in Italy was be­cause he would say that vis­ual ug­li­ness is very wear­ing on the soul.” ca­ble coils ( The

Soon there would be ac­claim and sell­out ex­hi­bi­tions, but “at the be­gin­ning we were on poor street”. It was a life of the mind and high cul­ture, “en­joy­ing each oth­ers ob­ser­va­tions of art and life, al­though I dis­agreed with a lot of his opin­ions. We fed on each other; he in­tro­duced me to Wag­ner and a lot of books. He read ev­ery­thing.”

They shared a pro­found love of mu­sic — “it makes your legs melt” — go­ing to op­eras, con­certs and per­for­mances of the Ring Cy­cle. “We used to go to Bayreuth ev­ery sum­mer to es­cape the heat in Tus­cany and meet friends there. When those fi­nal bars ended Jef­frey would say, ‘I wish it would all be­gin again.’ ”

And they un­der­took epic jour­neys in style. “He was so en­am­oured with dif­fer­ent cul­tures. Most of the travel re­ally was look­ing at arche­o­log­i­cal his­tory. I mean Greece, Morocco, Egypt, Turkey — Jef­frey adored all that.”

It was on these ad­ven­tures that Smart would glimpse some­thing that could be­come a paint­ing, the way the light played on con­crete per­haps, and he would sketch it quickly. “When an idea hit him it was very ex­cit­ing,” says De Zan.

“He prob­a­bly at some level was in­struct­ing us that the ur­ban world, to­day’s mod­ern world, isn’t ugly,” says his art dealer Philip Ba­con, who of­ten trav­elled with them. “It can be beau­ti­ful if you just know how to look at it. A bit of old rot­ting con­crete, a fire hy­drant, an oil derrick, can be ex­quis­ite.”

As a young man Smart had read TS Eliot’s Pre­ludes, and in phrases such as “news­pa­pers from va­cant lots” and “His soul stretched tight across the skies / That fade be­hind a city block” he found im­ages that res­onated with the things that stirred him to paint. Eliot’s ob­ser­va­tions gave him per­mis­sion to throw away pic­tures of flow­ers, gum trees and bil­l­abongs. De Zan refers to Eliot re­peat­edly as the key to un­der­stand­ing Smart and his work. “Jef­frey could quote reams of TS Eliot. Be­cause he had that sort of mem­ory. Just read a bit of TS Eliot and you will see.”

Al­though De Zan had stud­ied art in Mel­bourne and won three schol­ar­ships to Yale, he chose not to pur­sue paint­ing, in­stead be­com­ing a farmer and cre­at­ing a botan­i­cal mar­vel. He and Smart bought up the land around La Pos­tic­cia Nuova to pro­tect them­selves from the en­croach­ment of other build­ings.

“And you had to do some­thing with it. It be­came an end­less sort of thing. And then you had to buy trac­tors to do the work.” He planted olive groves and sold the olive oil it pro­duced. “Then I had sheep to keep the grass down. I had pedi­gree suf­folks from Eng­land. When you have pedi­gree sheep you have prob­lems be­cause they have all been mol­ly­cod­dled; the sort of sheep that you needed a timer to know when they are go­ing to lamb and you have got to be there. As Jef­frey said: ‘Any ex­cuse not to paint.’ ”

In a later email I ask him again why he put his own art aside. “The dis­trac­tions of gar­den­ing and farm­ing, so lack of dis­ci­pline,” he emails back. “Then the dif­fi­culty of liv­ing with a su­per ego who was crit­i­cal when he no­ticed lack of train­ing. It is very, very dif­fi­cult to have two artists un­der the same roof.”

In fact, by run­ning the house and farm, De Zan made it pos­si­ble for Smart to work unim­peded through the most pro­duc­tive years of his life, the years he was cre­at­ing his mas­ter­pieces.

De Zan now deeply misses their do­mes­tic rhythms and rit­u­als. “We never met at break­fast. I would get up much ear­lier to look af­ter the an­i­mals. He would have tea and some toast and usu­ally read for at least half an hour or 40 min­utes and by 9.30 he would go down to the stu­dio, write at least three let­ters and start work. He wrote to his mother once a week — it was quite a duty. At 11 o’clock I would take him morn­ing cof­fee. Then we would have lunch.” Af­ter a si­esta and a few more hours of work, Smart “loved to have com­pany”.

Artist Peter Churcher re­mem­bers that aper­i­tifs were at 7pm, no ear­lier. “It was a grand and glam­orous life. But some evenings they would just be watch­ing movies.”

Their din­ner guests were of­ten daz­zling; peo­ple flocked to their ta­ble — dig­ni­taries, celebri­ties, aris­to­crats. Smart was gre­gar­i­ous, al­ways beam­ing, but he could be iras­ci­ble.

“Jef­frey had a won­der­ful wit,” says De Zan, “but he could be a bit stuzzi­care, a tease. He had no pa­tience for peo­ple who were shy. If you

Jef­frey Smart with Ermes de Zan, c. 1980, left; Smart’s 2000-01), above, and Por­trait at Mid­dle­ton (c. 1948), above right

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