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image icon 'Robe', 1947

'Robe', 1947
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is an oil painting, measuring 50.8 cm x 61.3 cm, by Jeffrey Smart (1921-) dating from 1947. It shows a shipyard scrap heap, consisting of old bits of machinery and metal that are piled up and scattered about. The assortment of items is dominated by a large cylindrical drum propped up on two large horizontal pipes. Some draped fishing nets can be seen in the immediate foreground area. Behind and to the right of the scrap heap is a partly visible shed and the mast and bowsprit of a sailing vessel. Several more masts and part of a metal construction can be seen to the left of the central drum shape. The whole motley assemblage is set against a grey sky streaked with horizontal grey rows of clouds and a wide expanse of blue water edged by a coastal headland (with sheltershed) and stretch of white beach.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is a work by Jeffrey Smart, an expatriate artist who is regarded by many as Australia's best known living artist - Smart studied at the South Australian School of Art (1937-41) and in 1948-50 spent time travelling in Europe; he studied in Paris for a six-month period under the French Cubist artist Fernand Léger (1881-1955); in 1951 he relocated from Adelaide to Sydney to work as art critic for the 'Daily Telegraph' newspaper (1952-54) and to teach life drawing at the East Sydney Technical College (1959); in 1963 Smart left Australia to live permanently in Italy; he has continued to travel widely throughout Europe, the USA, Asia and Africa, and to visit and exhibit regularly in Australia; since the early 1950s he has largely focused on creating somewhat disturbing images of the built environment, in particular deserted highways and streetscapes, impersonal tower blocks and civic structures; the human figures in these environments invariably appear lonely and isolated or look as if they are under surveillance
  • demonstrates Smart's ability to create remarkable images from unremarkable material - the apparent subject of 'Robe' is a scrap heap, but the art (and therefore the real subject) of the painting lies in the way the artist has edited and composed the different items to create a dramatic composition in which each shape, pattern or line has an important part to play; it has been said of Smart's work that he has always been able to translate the most sterile icons of modernity, such as concrete streetscapes, industrial wastelands, freeways, street signs, trucks, containers and oil drums, into carefully arranged pictures of great beauty
  • demonstrates significant compositional skills - while studying at the art school in Adelaide, Smart (along with fellow students) visited the studio of Adelaide artist Dorrit Black (1891-1951), who had studied Cubist art in Paris in the late 1920s; Smart recalled that Black 'generously gave us all her notes, details of dynamic symmetry which she had learnt from [André] Lhote [1885-1962] and [Albert] Gleizes [1881-1953] in Paris ... Dorrit taught us above all to make pictures, to examine the bare bones of composition'; Smart's sense of compositional structure is evident in 'Robe' in the way he has used a number of visual devices, for example, the large, round drum shape in the centre helps to stabilise the image, the simplified, undulating forms of the draped nets and shed on the right both frame and contrast with the visual complexity of the scrap heap, and the two pipes that support the central drum shape help to lead the eye from one side of the image to the other
  • is one of a number of architectural and industrial subject works made by Smart in the mid- to later 1940s - similar subjects included his studies of railway sidings and towers around Adelaide, old copper mining sites (Kapunda), abandoned rural settlements (lower Flinders Ranges) and deserted foreshores with architectural features (Robe and Port Elliot); Robe is a town (with a fishing port history) on the south-east coast of South Australia
  • references a trend in Australian art of the 1940s to 1950s towards industrial and urban (as opposed to rural landscape) subjects - a diverse range of artists including Sidney Nolan (1917-92), Albert Tucker (1914-99), Josl Bergner (1920-) and John Brack (1920-99) treated the city as set pieces for human dramas; the writing of US-born poet, novelist and playwright T S Eliot (1888-1965), particularly his 1925 poem 'The hollow men' and his collection of poems 'The waste land' (published 1922), had a significant influence on this generation of artists' choice of city and industrial subjects as symbols of post-Second World War moral despair.