Jeffrey Smart

Learning Resource

A labyrinth of sandstone coloured walls takes up the bottom two thirds of the painting. The lightly clouded sky matched the coat of a man standing in the centre of the maze, wearing a hat and gazing into one of the corridors.

Jeffrey Smart
Labyrinth

2011

Labyrinth
2011 Tuscany, Italy
oil on canvas
100 x 100 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased with the assistance of the Margaret Olley Art Trust and Mr Philip Bacon AM in honour of Ron Radford AM, Director of the National Gallery of Australia 2004–14 2014
100 Works for 100 Years
© The Estate of Jeffrey Smart
2014.974


Labyrinth is the last painting Smart made. It brings together many of the philosophical, literary and aesthetic threads that run through his work.

The central figure is a portrait of HG Wells. In his 1895 book The time machine, HG Wells wrote:

‘To sit among all those unknown things before a puzzle like that is hopeless. That way lies monomania. Face this world. Learn its ways, watch it, be careful of too hasty guesses at its meaning. In the end you will find clues to it all.’

Smart’s labyrinth, or maze, dominates the picture, except for a brooding sky. What do you notice about the colour of these two key elements in the work and the texture of each?

The title of Smart’s painting Labyrinth does not literally align with the image, which is of a maze. A labyrinth is a curved single walkway that takes you into a central point, turning back on itself a few times before leading you back to the beginning. Walking the labyrinth is a meditative, spiritual journey. A maze, by contrast, is an intellectual exercise – you can get lost, you can end up in many dead ends and you need to be alert and aware.

Reflect on the passage from HG Wells’s The time machine. Given the writer is depicted in the centre of the work, coupled with Smart’s lifelong interest in geometry and philosophy, what meaning do you draw from this painting?

Listen to the sound work by Annika Moses, made in response to Labyrinth. How does the rhythm and tone of the piece relate to the painting? What instruments and sounds are used to create this piece?

Think of a geometric form that evokes a sense of peace for you. Create a drawing of this form using coloured markers on white paper.

Look at the work of artist Hilma af Klint (link below) for more examples of works that evoke sacred geometry.

Related Links:

From the Audio Tour:

Music composed by Annika Moses

The prospect of wandering this blue-sky labyrinth forever is kind of dismal but also almost laughably so. I wanted to harness a goofy optimism, wobbling forward no matter the right angles that life throws at us.

Labyrinth is Jeffrey Smart’s last major painting. It brings together many of the philosophical, literary and artistic threads running through his work since his first paintings in Adelaide in the 1940s. Labyrinth was inspired by a hedged maze the artist saw on a book cover. The motif merged with his ongoing interest in geometry and metaphysics. It also draws on the philosophy of JW Dunne, an aeronautical engineer and author of An experiment with time (1927), who believed that dreams could represent the past, present and future. The central figure is a portrait of English writer HG Wells who was friends with Dunne and who foreshadowed in his science fiction writing many future developments, such as satellite television and the internet.