UNDER A TUSCAN SUN
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
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