Sunday 1 April 2012 Plane bound for Italy, via London, with Stuart Purves to visit Jeffrey Smart in Tuscany, where he has lived for more than four decades. Have thought about making this trip for several months. Jeffrey, who came into both our professional lives—and we into his—profoundly a long time ago, is now in his ninety-first year. Confined to a wheelchair, he seems to have stopped painting, succumbing to the inevitable travails of age; but, judging from faxes and phone calls, his intellect is still sharp, and he doesn’t seem to have lost the desire to work. We hear various reports. About his health. About his willpower. Soon we shall see for ourselves.
Will this be our final goodbye? Has he painted his last painting, Labyrinth, from last year? Is he is still capable of producing an exhibition? I doubt it, even though just a few weeks ago he rang to say he was anxious to get on with a new composition, requiring only someone to model. I guess we shall be closer to answering these questions in a few days.
We have framed a short itinerary to see certain things before and after Tuscany, which will loosely flesh out why living in Europe has been so crucial to Jeffrey. The plan in chronological order:London, for a retrospective of his late friend, Lucien Freud, with whom he felt simpatico as a fellow realist—Paestum, southern Italy, where ancient ruins underline his fascination with stasis and evolution in the relics of great civilisations—Naples, at the Archaeological Museum for a mosaic from Pompeii which in the late 1940s indicated a course for his enduring vision as a painter—Posticcia Nuova, near Arezzo, in the village of Pieve a Presciano— Venice, for an altarpiece he regards as the most beautiful painting in the entire history of European art—and finally Dresden, a city slowly resurrected over decades from rubble and ashes after being obliterated by the Allies near the end of World War Two.
Paestum and Dresden, two cities devastated, one slowly over time, the other in an instant. An appropriate bookending perhaps—with a London prelude—for this intensive trip.
But the very thought of it all in less than a couple of weeks is exhausting as we hit the ground running.
Monday 2 April Arrive London. After checking into a Chelsea hotel mid-afternoon, decide on spec to make our way to the Royal Academy for the David Hockney exhibition. Four-hour wait for a timed ticket! Luckily my AICA card gets us immediately to the admission desk for five o’clock entry. The English seem eager to welcome their Yorkshireman to the big stage like a prodigal son. Time to walk to the nearby White Cube Gallery and see a Gilbert & George installation. Red, black, white: already we are in the thick of contemporary British art, with spectacular, elegant grids of tabloid headlines, some hovering between eroticism and obscenity. Strangely, there is something chic in those dazzling ensembles of pattern that render the impact of the words ineffective. Is this preparing us for Damien Hirst?
The Hockney exhibition, based on landscape and the artist’s return to his homeland Yorkshire, is astonishing. So many paintings at speed, with walls of gridded panoramas, colour verging on the vulgar, yet passages of lyrical delicacy (if one is able to muscle one’s way through crowds to get up close) that suggest this ageing star is a real painter. Hockney seems to have learnt from his long American residency about scale and chutzpah. The disturbing challenge is a vast room with big commissioned canvases of digital reproductions from images rendered on an iPad, a grand folly of the artist’s long obsession with the technology of photography and replication. Are people aware of what they are actually looking at? They may think painting, but it is an illusion. There’s something brazenly treacherous going on.
There’s almost a feeling of nationalist euphoria—a collective sense of ownership resonating back to Constable, but via French Post-Impressionist colour and American scale. Art Gallery of New South Wale’s Hockney donated by the Ainsworth family is in the show. Looks particularly good in this context, one of the standouts.
Tuesday 3 April We are told there is an arctic front coming, bringing with it snow for the next few days. Luckily we’ll miss it, on our way to Naples tomorrow.
This morning to the Courtauld. The Thames looking lovely, silver and grey, the trees holding back, ready to explode their leaf buds into spring. As usual, the Courtauld is blissfully free of crowds, yet full of masterpieces of the modern era: some of the most famous paintings by Manet, Renoir, van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat, Cézanne. Gauguin makes me think of Olley these days, but in the room of Cézannes, with images like The Card players, Man with a Pipe, Still Life with Pears and a sublime version of Mont Sainte-Victoire, we ponder the significance of this master to Jeffrey. The visual connection is not quite clear and we are determined to ask about it when we get to Tuscany.
But a surprise on the top floor: two rooms dedicated to the two-year association between Piet Mondrian and Ben Nicholson. Mondrian left Europe in 1938 at the invitation of Nicholson and lived next door to the English artist at Hampstead Heath until departing for New York in 1940.Beautifully curated and displayed, such vignette shows like this discovered incidentally can change one’s life more potently than blockbusters.
We walk along the Strand towards Trafalgar Square, to the Lucien Freud exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. As with Hockney, the crowds for Freud are substantial, and timed tickets are necessary. However we meet with Stuart’s English Serb-Croat friend Borjo Ivanovic who gets us into the exhibition straight away buying off-loaded tickets from someone near the entrance.
So many visitors makes it difficult to engage with the paintings and give them the time they deserve. I have a pervading problem with Freud, not because of the cruel, almost dyspeptic honesty of his portrayal of human flesh—which is not too far from Francis Bacon—but rather Freud’s habit of brushing too much along the forms instead of against them (as Sickert advocated for bonne peinture), which nudges him towards descriptiveness. His sense of placement of shapes within the picture space is really sound, but heavily impastoed figures often float against trompe-l’oeil floorboards, splitting his paintings into two realms. You don’t get this kind of disjunction in Auerbach and Kossof.
Borjo would have none of this. He thinks Freud is the Rembrandt of our time…
Brief peek in the National Gallery at the Piero della Francesca and Bellini paintings for the sake of Jeffrey, as well as us, and the wonderful Canaletto The Stonemason’s Yard—but I’m disappointed to find Bellini’s Madonna of the Meadow missing, apparently on loan. As we pass Piero di Cosimo’s Mythological Subject (once Death of Procris) and Titian’s late Death of Actaeon, we think of Arthur Boyd and how much they meant to him and shaped his vision when he arrived in London half a century ago.
Late afternoon, after a walk along Cork Street and an exhibition of late paintings by Jean Dubuffet, we rest at the hotel, returning at night for a concert at St Martin in the Fields, including one of Jeffrey’s favourites, Fauré’s Requiem. J has a broad taste in music, and is besotted with Wagner and Bach of course, but has a particular liking for the French: Fauré, Berlioz, and Ravel especially. He once told me he wants Ravel’s Mother Goose suite played at his funeral.
Wednesday 4 April Check out of hotel, bags deposited at Victoria Station ready for late afternoon departure to Gatwick for the plane to Naples. So, today will be a crush. We go to the National Gallery, this time to look at the moderns, with a focus on Seurat’s great bathing painting. In the Sainsbury Wing is an exhibition based on Turner’s inspiration from Claude, a solid scholarly show, but without the feeling of exaltation I expected. Perhaps we are trying to fit in too much, unable to dedicate the concentration and study such an exhibition requires.
Indeed, a day for rollerblades. To Tate Modern, across the Millennium Bridge and its grand view of St Paul’s dome, and to the turbine hall to get tickets for the Damien Hirst exhibition. Again crowds mesmerised, anticipating seeing Britain’s most controversial and successful artist. AICA saves the day once more and we avoid the long queue.
Spotty paintings, butterfly wings, insects, cigarette butts, glistening diamonds, pharmaceutical products incarcerated in vitrines, on shelves, or like specimens (à la Pitt Rivers Museum) in countless rows of glassed-in shallow boxes; sharks and animals immortalised in aspic. There is even a room of live butterflies, attendants examining one’s back on exit to check that none escape. No expense has been spared on the pristine framing and presentation, with shiny silver frames and butterfly wallpaper, of this spectacular metaphor of life and death. How shall we explain all this to Jeffrey?
I’m not sure if it delivers much salvation. The display of one of the most compelling brands in contemporary art dazzles with indulgence and showbiz nous. Curiously though, maybe the aesthetic of Jeffrey’s response to the matrix of concrete module apartments, stripes and repetitive traffic signs, has a remote kind of synergy to Hirst’s obsession with the chemist shop and repetitive pattern. We are all of us, one way or another in current society, captives of the grid.
Late lunch at Tate Britain, in Stuart’s favourite museum restaurant with its charming murals by Rex Whistler based on the theme of hunting rare game in lush classical landscapes. I haven’t been here since living in London in the early 1970s. We are lucky—the restaurant is due to close down shortly for conservation work and a makeover. Afterwards, a stroll through the collections. Why is the Tate so often disappointing? Its displays feel curatorially whimsical, thesis driven, or just plain thin. The spareness always tends to make one sense something is missing. Why is Stanley Spencer’s masterpiece Christ carrying the cross not on show? Where are the great Sickerts? The thirst for change makes one feel rootless, inadequately nourished.
The day petering out, we go to Gatwick and fly to Naples.
Thursday 5 April Arrived late last night at Grand Hotel Santa Lucia, recommended by Jeffrey, not realising until this morning how spectacular its position is on the shoreline of the Bay of Naples. From across the Via Partenope we are greeted by the sound of seabirds and a shimmering vision of marinas, ferries and fishing boats. To the east are the islands of Procida, and Ischia, where J stayed with Adelaide artist friends Jackie Hick and Michael Shannon in 1949–50. To the west, Vesuvius looms in the blue haze, its fractured peak covered by cloud, hovering over Pompeii.
J must have caught the ferry here from Ischia—made his way through the robust commerce of the streets near the Spanish Quarter with glimpses of steep rises along narrow passages until he reached the Capodimonte, or the National Archaeological Museum. We shall go there later this afternoon, but he wanted us to come here specifically to make a visit to Paestum, two or so hours drive south along the coast, past Salerno.
Stuart strikes a bargain with a taxi driver named Rafael to take us to Paestum and back for under 300 euros. We set off in the rain, stopping for coffee at Salerno. Arrive late morning—still raining. Stuart has been before. Jeffrey brought him here several years ago, hoping it would change his life. Indeed it did, opening up his understanding of the functioning of a city in ancient times and its peculiar resonances of human traffic with our own.
But I was unprepared for my own response to the haunting beauty of this site, with its three temples—one of which predates the Parthenon Acropolis in Athens—built by migrating Greeks in the 6th century BC. The amalgam of cultures, particularly Greek, then substantially Roman, echoed in these splendid architectural skeletons, surrounded by foundations of houses, shops, streets, lanes, market squares, forums and sporting arenas, and complemented by spectacular funeral art in the adjacent museum, overwhelmed me completely, emotionally, intellectually. Apparently, the city fell into neglect during the Middle Ages, not from wars, or earthquakes, or eruptions, but an encroachment of malaria—infested marshland, its population deserting to healthier parts.
Jeffrey has spent his life combing ancient archaeological sites like this. I had thought of it as merely the indulgence of an incorrigible tourist, but I can see more clearly now his fascination with posterity and what lasts through time, what fades—encapsulated in Hardy’s poem Heredity, that he loves so much. This brings a new spin perhaps on his perspective of the vanities of modern technology and architecture. Somewhere, between the changing fabric of the world and the steady miracle of light that reveals it, is the answer to eternity.
The feeling is reinforced when we return to Naples and the Archaeological Museum late afternoon, agog at the wonderful relics of Pompeiian mosaics, such as the Dioskourides depiction of street musicians which in 1950 had such a profound influence on Jeffrey’s modernist notions of light, composition and subject matter that have never changed. But it is the magnificent composition of Alexander in battle with Darius and the Persians, the large mosaic based on a wall painting that no longer exists, which must surely match anything achieved by the great masters of the Renaissance, or for that matter, anything since. Dinner on the Marina opposite the hotel, drunk with the day’s excursion, we are ready to see Jeffrey.
Good Friday 6 April After yesterday we needed the long train journey which takes us from Naples to Arezzo. It’s a relief not to be rushing to an airport as we sit comfortably for several hours watching long wedges and shards of green and grey race by, trees with tight green buds still waiting to greet the spring, flat farmland morph into hills and mountains and back to plains again. It looks cold out there, and as we coast through one siding a cloud of tiny leaves or blossom petals follows us horizontally along the platform like ersatz snow.
About 2.30 pm, in distant view of Lake Trasimeno, where over two millennia ago Hannibal’s Carthaginian army defeated the Romans leaving a river red with blood for days, we slip quietly into Arezzo station, where Jeffrey’s partner Ermes de Zan collects us in pouring rain in his Jeep.
As we near Pieve a Presciano, the rain eases and we are surprised at the dryness of the land: some of the young cypresses planted along the fringes of Ermes’s property have died; and embankments broken by wild pigs are creating channels of unwanted run-off down to the earth road. Apparently this area is in a rain shadow and can suffer semi-drought whilst it is raining elsewhere. We reach the gates of Posticcia Nuova, slightly apprehensive at greeting Jeffrey at last, and how he will be.
He is asleep. Ermes goes to the chemist whilst we settle in the apartment below the loggia. Finally, Jeffrey wakes, helped into his wheelchair. The shock was not so great because we had been prepared for it, but he has shrunk more physically since I last saw him two years ago. He is alert, but tires quickly, and often asks one to repeat a comment or question due to hearing loss. Daily physiotherapy, heavy medication and oxygen have helped him, but at the same time seem to have pushed him into a slightly remote zone of consciousness. Ermes has brought creams from the chemist to remove eruptions on his skin.
Conversation warms, but in spite of our pressing questions about the influence of Cézanne, he stonewalls on the subject and diverts to Adelaide. Jeffrey has been recently reading a biography of Hitler by Joachim Fest (which he has passed on to me), fascinated as ever with the triumphs and catastrophes of extraordinary personalities in the history of European culture. He recalls, ‘the Adelaide Jews saved my bacon, helped me to connect to a larger civilised world I longed to experience.’ I have not heard this before and write their names down.
Above all he still has the desire to paint, disappointed Labyrinth came to an end. ‘I have another composition in mind, if only I could get someone to pose. Ermes won’t oblige. There’s nothing wrong with my eyes. This morning I looked out my bedroom window at the white blossom and saw a bee. A bee!’ he declares in amazement.
Over dinner his wit begins to rekindle, with rowdy reminiscences and exchanges of gossip. Tomorrow we shall try to sneak a look at the studio. But if painters can no longer paint, or get to the studio, the next best thing is simply to think about it. It’s a state of hope. The emergence of every new painting is the fleshing of another dream.
Saturday 7 April This morning after breakfast Jeffrey is in good spirits. He has a bossy Russian nurse named Olga, whom he adores, and she prepares him well for each day. Conversation turns to the destination of Dresden (via Venice) after we leave. J is querulous. Why are we going there?
Originally I was travelling to Milan alone after Venice, to fly home. However, Stuart persuaded me to accompany him to Germany because years ago, when he was in the Prado with Jeffrey and Ermes looking at Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross, Ermes told him about another masterpiece in Dresden. I discovered too late, when we were locked into the itinerary, there is no van der Weyden painting there, only a drawing. Ermes got out a book on the Flemish artist and pointed to a huge polyptych in Beaune, France, The Last Judgement. ‘That is the work I was referring to,’ he said. Well, either Ermes was mistaken about the city, or Stuart misheard. It doesn’t matter in the end. We were meant to go to Dresden for something else.
Jeffrey regrets he is not able to attend the survey of his paintings I have curated for the Samstag Museum of Art in Adelaide this October. In particular he is excited by the loan from a USA collection—through the indefatigable Stephen Rogers—of Morning practice, Baia, never seen in Australia. But he is obsessed that we also try to get the oil study for this into the show, ‘even though it is only a very poor thing,’ he says. ‘Then why show it?’ I say. ‘Because,’ he says, ‘it will demonstrate the basis of what is perhaps my best painting.’ I try to explain that this is not a didactic exercise, but very tight, crème de la crème exhibition, and it wouldn’t make sense to include a mediocre study. But he won’t let it go. It’s the Phidias in him. I don’t know where we will finish on this issue. I want to please him, in spite of his unreasonable fixation.
While Olga works on Jeffrey, Ermes takes Stuart and me into the studio across the terrace, and although everything is familiar from before—the palette, easels, paints and brushes, the old pinboard, the daybed, the desk and chair where faxes went back and forth almost on a daily basis, the bookcase with files and folders, the rack for paintings and so on, there is a distinct air of inactivity. One is aware of it in the absence of a smell of solvents; a sense of stasis awaiting the archivist. Lovely light comes through the arched window, caressing the old wooden chair in front of the easels, but the artist is gone, and it doesn’t feel like he is coming back. We walk out, enfolded in melancholy. Can it really be all over? Is it? We follow Ermes up the hill to tend his sheep, wondering what he thinks about the future.
We drive to lunch with Jeffrey’s and Ermes’s friends Arthur and Anna Sturgess, about 35 minutes away. They live in a house on a mountainside overlooking the Val d’Arno with breathtaking views. Jeffrey says he had once considered buying this house instead of Posticcia Nuova, but it wouldn’t have been a farm. The adult Sturgess children are there—Simon, Alexandra and David—and they are wonderful company, noisy, ebullient. J seems to enjoy the chatter, but because he is seated at the end so his feet can be elevated, his hearing loss keeps him on the margins of the conversation. He needs this stimulation however, contact with friends who love him, and visitors in short bursts, now that there is no longer a requirement to protect studio time.
Suddenly the cacophony of the lunch ceases, as Ermes announces Jeffrey must get home to sleep. He is wheeled down the steps to the car and we are back at Posticcia Nuova by 4 pm. Ermes tends his sheep, cruises the internet, Stuart and I have a brief nap, and just after 6pm I go upstairs to write up this diary whilst Olga is tending Jeffrey in the bedroom. She appears at the door, indicating for me to go in. He is sitting up in bed looking amazingly fresh, and we talk for about an hour, mainly reminiscing on his part about Adelaide, and in particular how much Ursula Hayward meant to him—and about the dangerous flirtations that might have exposed his sexuality—and how he is sure his mother never knew to the end.This reminds me of those moments in the past when I was writing a book, and he was so generous and funny, so wickedly witty, about his life story—mixed with occasional shafts of self-doubt that took one by surprise. He is surrounded by books. Always a fast reader, he now seems to be filling the painting void by getting through them at a rapid clip. Stuart walks in as Olga in Russian style begins to usher me out; with J’s parting comment: ‘Don’t forget to get that poor little study for Morning practice, Baia. It shows what I was able to do in the final version.’
The mood over dinner, prepared by Ermes, is slightly anti-climactic. Unspoken, there is a feeling of the last supper for this particular company. We say our goodbyes going off to bed because we know we shall not see Jeffrey in the morning. But first, something strange happens, and I am in two minds about writing it down.
Just before dessert, Stuart asked if he could have a whisky, and J sent me to get a bottle from the bar in the living room. It is a cavernous space in semi-darkness apart from dim light from two windows flanking the bar. The window on the left is above a piano in the corner. I moved towards a floor lamp halfway across the room and got on my hands and knees (like Rilke as a child in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge) to switch it on. Lifting my gaze to the piano I saw a shadowy, indistinct image of a man standing there with red pants. I blinked, and he was gone. There was no threat, no fear, only slight goosebumps.
I told them in the dining room, and Jeffrey reminded me others had seen the spectre before, all separate sightings—that there was a story about a French regiment once stationed nearby with soldiers distinguished by their red pants. I remember this story now, and being spooked by it when staying here on previous occasions. Surely, the hallucination was my creation. I am tired, never allowed proper recovery from jet lag since arriving from Sydney—and today at lunch, Simon kept topping up my glass with red wine without me quite realising, which does not go down well with my system. In this state—because I am not a habitual drinker—maybe I am prone to seeing things.
Sunday 8 April Early morning we get ready for Ermes to drive us to Montevarchi to catch the train to Venice via Florence. We sit on the terrace as the first sun we have seen since being here casts a russet glow across the nearby tree trunks, and beyond, the hills of Migliari. The magnolias are out and their petals already falling, pink and white blossoms cover the fruit trees; and soon the days will begin to get warmer. It is still and silent apart from the tyres of the Jeep crunching gravel outside the garage before we head down the drive to the gate. Less than an hour later, after a coffee with Ermes we are on our way to Venice. Jeffrey urged us to break our journey in Florence to see an exhibition Americans in Florence at the Palazzo Strozzi, but we are not going to do that. Time is too short.
Train change at Florence and we settle for the second leg to Venice. For the first time there is not much conversation between Stuart and me—too much emotional digestion going on. He is reading a book on fakes and forgeries, and I have started Fest’s biography of Hitler which is probably as good as anything for a prelude to Dresden. I fall asleep—wake as the train is crossing the bridge to La Serenissima. We arrive at Venice railway station about 1.35 pm. It begins to rain. We get the vaporetto to San Marco.
I have not been here for forty years, and am struck by how unchanged it is. It must be something to do with it being careless that makes Venice the most timeless city in the world. Rain, cold, clear sunshine, heat, impregnable crowds of tourists like a virus —but who can blame them for wanting to come here—it doesn’t matter, the magic is undiminished. We don’t have much time, so after dropping bags at the Anastasia Hotel we start walking to the main destination: San Zaccaria, where resides the painting Jeffrey regards so highly.
This church, established to house remains of the father of John the Baptist presented to Venice by a Byzantine emperor in the 9th century, opens today at 4 pm. We wait a little while, then go in. After putting a coin in the box to illuminate Bellini’s Sacre conversazione, in the centre of the wall to the left, we sit before it, emptying our pockets for the next half an hour or so.
I know it from small reproductions in books, but the reality transcends all expectation. Its scale and classic symmetry, trompe-l’oeil architecture framing the tenderest glimpses of landscape in the background, resonant colour, precise shapes and pure logic of light, makes most of the Baroque paintings surrounding it seem indulgently out of control. This work is, at the centre of any storm, a pillar of the Church and a great masterpiece of visual intelligence. ‘What is that strange wooden object held by the female saint to the left of the Madonna?’ asks Stuart. I inform him it’s the fragment of a wheel used in the martyrdom of Saint Catherine. We exit, planning to return at 6.30pm for the service when we won’t have to feed coins in the slot.
I suggest meanwhile we walk on to see my favourite Bellini, in the church of San Giovanni Crisostomo, just north of the Rialto Bridge. On the way however, we are waylaid by an exhibition based on Canaletto’s sketchbooks and related paintings in the eccentric, incompletely restored Palazzo Grimani.
It is an interactive, audio-visual presentation embracing original material rather like one sees in libraries, but a joy to look closely at Canaletto’s brisk pen and ink sketches, and fathom how he managed to tour the city harvesting detail with his camera obscura (two of which included in the display) on ferries, boats and gondolas. Lenses or not (one gets the feeling that a lot of these sketches have nothing to do with camera obscura), what an incredibly disciplined eye. We had looked carefully at his The stonemason’s yard in the National Gallery in London and felt there were passages Jeffrey might have snared: an orange wall with slanting light; a balcony with curtains billowed out just to make the wall colour look better with a patch of creamy white, or a figure leaning over, staring at the scene below.
We return to San Zaccaria in time for the service, sit through some of the ongoing crescendo of the sermon, all the time staring at Sacre conversazione. But after so much walking, hunger overcomes us, and we head for a small restaurant tucked away en route to the hotel. Only one more day here, and it requires planning and rest. We stop at a tiny bar near the hotel. Stuart orders a shot of cognac, a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice, and a cappuccino, all at the same time. I look at him querulously. ‘Sleeping tablet,’ he declares. I have been having trouble sleeping myself, and may try the remedy tomorrow.
Monday 9 April At last the sun is shining, and the crowds are out, this holiday Monday. Have not slept well and, moreover, accidentally sat on my glasses and broke the wings. Tonight, I shall definitely try the Purves remedy.
Today is a matter of what can be squeezed in, beginning with the Gallerie dell'Accademia. On the way we stop at a church converted to a free museum with a display of musical instruments from the period of Vivaldi. What begins as a quick look turns into a longer stay with these beautiful objects, and an intriguing reconstruction of an 18th century composer’s studio. A poster advertises a concert at the nearby church of San Vidal: the Interpreti Veneziani playing Vivaldi, Haydn and Purcell this evening. We buy tickets, determined to sit in the front row so we can stare at a good altarpiece by Vittore Carpaccio.
On to the bridge of the Accademia and its divine view of the Grand Canal and Santa Maria della Salute. If we see nothing else it is worth coming to Venice just for this. Which adds to a slight let-down of the Gallerie dell'Accademia. I had forgotten how poorly lit it is, many paintings without frames and possibly in need of conservation, which makes it hard work to enjoy that transcendent feeling always hoped for in a great art museum. How spoilt we are by the National Gallery in London. Still, one is saved by an ensemble of smaller paintings by Bellini, Lotto and Giorgione, including the latter’s mysterious La tempesta, and of course his completely mesmerising portrait of an old woman. Have to confess, given the state of exhaustion from endless walking, it is a relief to get out into the open again.
Perhaps there would be a corrective at the Peggy Guggenheim museum a little further along the Canal. Here there are splendid examples of Ernst, Kandinski, Pollock and other contemporary artists collected passionately by the benefactor, but many works hanging there have not stood the test of time, consigned to a historical moment of taste and patronage. Fortune continues to favour us with a surprise: downstairs is the Mattioli collection on long-term loan, including six splendid early Morandi paintings, illustrating the artist’s formative interest in Cézanne until just before a shift into pittora metafisica.
Time is running out: pointless to go to the Correr museum; and the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavone with its stunning murals by Carpaccio is closed today—so we decide to cap off the memory of art in Venice with my Bellini at San Giovanni Crisostomo. We take a vaporetto to the Rialto and walk from there, passing by the Rezzonico Palace and its splendid 18th century displays to be saved for another visit to Venice, another time.
Strange, near the museum of music there were hardly any tourists at all, but now, walking up from the Rialto towards San Giovanni Crisostomo, crowds begin to jam the streets like cars in the Eastern Distributor during rush hour—almost to a stand-still. Then, at a distance I see the distinctive red-orange walls of our destination shining in the sun and my heart leaps. What a humble little church—nothing like the glamour of San Zaccaria—with its side entrance tourists en masse seem to be unaware of. Inside is what is believed to be Bellini’s last altarpiece, a sublime image of serenity with three saints—Jerome, Christopher and Louis of Toulouse—and a background of sky, mountains and rock that contributed to Kenneth Clark’s assessment of Bellini as one of the greatest of all landscape painters. The symmetry of the composition says the faith is firm, and here to stay.
All that remains is tonight’s concert—and after dinner at another small, tucked-away restaurant, we make our way to San Vidal. It is still a little early for the concert, but darkening enough for street vendors to be out selling illuminated plastic spinners for two euros each. I buy a bunch for the grandchildren. We kill time by calling in to the Contini Gallery, a long established dealer near San Marco who has shown many modern Italian artists, including Morandi. I buy an early catalogue of the Yugoslav painter Zoran Music, remembering how impressed the young Brett Whiteley was with his work when he came here for the Venice Biennale in 1960.
Then we go on to the Accademia Bridge once more and look at the Grand Canal, the sky above the pale dream of Santa Maria della Salute turning a deep indigo—half-moon suspended like a celestial lantern. This is just about the favourite moment of all, gondoliers like a bunch of rogues wending their way home shouting greetings and songs at each other across the water against a fabric of timelessness.
The concert is invigorating, played with controlled gusto and enthusiasm. Afterwards, a Purves remedy at the little bar: cognac shot, orange juice and coffee. Tonight I shall sleep like a baby.
Tuesday 10 April One-and-a-half hour early morning ferry ride to Venice airport: a good way to leave, with a sense of this extraordinary city hovering behind us like a mirage as we plough through the shallows. But the airport is crowded after a long walk from the ferry. Eventually the plane gets us to Dresden via Munich, and at last the sense of rushing dissipates. Arrive about 4 pm at the Hotel Taschenbergpalais Kempinski.
It is the most luxurious hotel I have ever stayed in, but rates are remarkably low, perhaps because we are still in the off-season. Everyone we encounter is so gentle and civilised, and the afternoon starts well when I take my broken glasses to an optician next to the hotel. It takes him half an hour to fix my glasses and he refuses to charge. The museums are now closing, so we walk across the road into the grounds of the Zwinger Palace, astounded by what we see.
This city was obliterated by the Allies at Churchill’s command during three days in February 1945, intended as a killer punch to bring the war to an end. Controversy still reigns as to whether it was necessary, but what we are seeing is the slow reconstruction of Dresden that has been taking place – relics, stone-by-stone, recovered from the rubble augmented with newly fabricated components, some stone, some concrete, with casts of statuary that were once carved – to restore the dignity of this great city. It can never be what it was completely of course, but sympathetic architectural additions are imbuing these spaces with an elegance for its citizens and visitors without any trace of gratuitous tourist appeal.
Perhaps when the blackened parts caused by those terrible phosphorous bombs in 1945 are eventually cleaned and blended more with the restoration – unless they wish to leave the black as a reminder – a seamless miracle will unfold. It will still take a lot more time, but one cannot help but fall in love with it all.
Wednesday 11 April Today at 4 pm we shall take the train to Frankfurt for the plane home. This allows time after breakfast for a leisurely look at the amazing porcelain museum in the Zwinger Palace, wondering how this huge collection of such vulnerability from Asian ceramics to chinoiserie and the full glory of Meissen actually survived. The new Green Room displays have been removed from their original opulent interiors apparently undergoing extensive restoration. At least one can see in clean modern spaces the incredible ostentation and capricious inventiveness of individual pieces. Not everyone’s cup of tea—certainly not ours—but not to be missed as an essential component of the history of culture and taste in this region of Germany.
Finally, we walk to the Gemäldegalerie, all but exhausted with visual overload, but still switched on enough to be inspired by the tiniest work there, a Madonna altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, a jewel that fixes itself in the mind above all the rooms of Rubens and giant canvases of the Venetians. En route, Stuart spots a Lucas Cranach triptych on the theme of Saint Catherine, middle panel showing the full wooden wheel of her martyrdom, source of the strange fragment he noticed in the San Zaccaria Bellini. His joy at spotting this connection is charming.At Dresden railway station we eat remarkably tasty sausages at a booth; the train pulls out, and we are on our way to Frankfurt, arriving there late evening at the airport hotel. The plane for Sydney via Abu Dhabi leaves tomorrow at 11.15 am.
Saturday 14 April The change of plane at Abu Dhabi on Wednesday did not go smoothly. Kept stranded on the tarmac for a few hours whilst engineers tried to fix a malfunctioning electronic component, the flight was cancelled and we were offloaded to a hotel, as a sandstorm moved quietly in and hovered, faintly shrouding everything around us in the landscape. Finally, at 10.30 am Friday, we were on our way on a rescheduled flight, to arrive in Sydney at 6.35 am Saturday.
Flight on time, we now float gently over the Australian continent, about to make our descent into New South Wales. Stuart has been the ideal travelling companion, and it couldn’t have gone better—as my mind casts back through this intensely crammed journey, and in particular what is to become of Posticcia Nuova, the question we asked ourselves from the beginning.
I am just wondering if I should exorcise reference to the ghost I thought I saw at Posticcia Nuova, which may seem a silly irrelevance in the long run. But then, this trip has been full of ghosts. We all carry them within us, stardust not only of lost loved ones, but also those we never knew, possibly everyone who ever lived—the people who went about daily life amongst the stones and spaces of Paestum—the poor souls of Dresden who suffered the backlash against their demonic leader with a reprisal that was, symbolically at least, almost equal in violence to his sustained assault on Europe and Russia. We have a custodial responsibility for all that has been best in the humanity of the departed, and to at least try and maximise our effort to make good come out of the worst catastrophes. Maybe that is the real purpose ghosts have in our existence.
As for Jeffrey? Well, if he can still be amazed at what he is able to see outside his window in Tuscany each morning and, looking down from the loggia to his studio, imagine a painting he might do if it was at all possible, may he endure as long as his desire permits, and he is able.
Master of Stillness: Jeffrey Smart paintings 1940–2011 is showing at 12 October – 14 December 2012 at the Samstag Museum of Art in Adelaide and will then tour to TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville, Victoria. A major publication by Wakefield Press will accompany the exhibition.
© Barry Pearce