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Jeffrey Smart

Updated on May 22, 2012
Self-portrait, Australian artist Jeffrey Smart
Self-portrait, Australian artist Jeffrey Smart

Regrets, he's had a few

An acquaintance of mine tells the story, not without a certain bitter rankle to his voice, of a time in the 1970s when he lived on the top floor of a block of flats in South Yarra in Melbourne. Often he would take a stroll among the many little specialty shops in the area and on one such occasion his attention was grabbed by a large painting in a gallery window--a striking image of a man standing at the edge of a freeway.

For several days he agonized over whether or not to purchase the painting and although he was captivated by the image, the $2000 price tag was a hefty sum for someone living on a school teachers salary. Deciding in the end it would be far more sensible not to indulge his artistic fancies he forsook the painting and consigned the memory of it to the back of his mind.

Fast Forward...

I first encountered Jeffrey Smart on an excursion to the Victorian Gallery and I too was instantly captivated and by the very same painting that had so mesmerised my friend years before. The painting was Jeffrey Smart's Cahill Expressway and much to that poor school teacher's self-flagellating regret, is now an icon of modern Australian art and a blue-chip valuable commodity, probably worth a million. Peter Carey used it to effect on the first edition dust jacket for his collection of short stories The Fat Man in History. It just doesn't pay to be too sensible.

Cahill Expressway
Cahill Expressway

Static Intensity

Cahill Expessway is a wonderful painting. Smart's urban/light industrial landscapes have a lucid but detached tone that has a kind of hypnotic pull on the viewer. A similar effect can be observed viewing American Gothic --it's drama without histrionics. With Smart's painting any emotional content comes from the viewer and not the artist, who has created an impassive portrait of an isolated man in an urban landscape. With subsequent viewing the painting seems to take on more complexity and the freeway can be read in a number of ways; as a metaphor for modernity or time or travel...or emptiness.

The suited fat man seems to standing a in a kind of void, caught in a motionless silence and dwarfed by the size of an impressively built but nonetheless empty structure. In the background the buildings of the city loom...the fat man should belong there -he is suited, ready for work, yet he seems displaced and alienated.

Smart creates visual metaphors in his paintings and it is that which connects with the viewer to create an emotional resonance, in the same way a lyrical metaphor in a song or poem might. The artist doesn't need to make his own emotions obvious in order to convey intense feeling.

'Study for 'Holiday' by Jeffrey Smart. .
'Study for 'Holiday' by Jeffrey Smart. .


Smart's painting's are not self-consciously Australian - they could be any urban landscape, anywhere in the world and indeed, he has not lived in Australia for a long time. Rather, these are the urban-scapes of the world we live in -sometimes harsh, alienating and all encompassing but nonetheless compelling, especially in the detail. The green roll down shutters in the balcony painting at right, for example, are suggestive of paranoia and insecurity.

The painter often favours vivid planes of flat colour with beautiful contrast hues in the details and background and the human element is represented by small insignificant figures.

In Holiday, a motionless, diminutive figure is suspended in a box that jutts out from a towering building. As is the case with Cahill Expressway, the effect is that he is part of the landcape but at the same time separated.

The figure is impersonal yet we can identify with the 'humanness', as we can with the slightly more animated figures in the picture above and although these figures are not swallowed up by the buildings around them, they are reduced by them. Their humanity however, only seems more poignantly obvious because of this.

The Shrinking Portrait

Fellow expatriate Australian and humourist Clive James tells the story of when he sat for a portrait at Smart's studio in Tuscany. At the end of the session James took a look at the prepatory sketch and thought with some satisfaction that he looked a little like a Roman senator -'rather heroic'. However it was to be some years before he saw the final painting and when he did he was startled to see that he was just a speck in a vast modernist landscape (below).

Portrait of Clive James
Portrait of Clive James


Born in Adelaide in 1921 Smart studied at the South Australian School of Arts and Crafts, left the country after WWII and studied in Europe for a time at the Academie Montmartre. He returned in 1951, became a critic for the Daily Telegraph and then a broadcaster for the ABC.

~Oh yes, it was a very lonely thing. Being an artist and being queer was a very lonely situation~

Openly gay since the 1940s, Smart published his autobiography, Not Quite Straight in 1996. He moved to Italy in 1965 and in 1975 moved into what Clive James refers to as "the most beautiful house for an artist to live in", the Posticcia Nuova, near Arlezzo and has lived there ever since.

~Edna Everage calls an expatriate a traitor. Nothing of the sort, I think it's absolute nonsense. I'm an Australian who lives in Italy. I never feel anything but Australian, how could I not?~

Container Train by Jeffrey Smart
Container Train by Jeffrey Smart


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    • Jane Bovary profile image

      Jane Bovary 7 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      I think there's some warmth in the colours too.

    • Rod Marsden profile image

      Rod Marsden 7 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

      Actually the self-portrait has some warmth.

    • Jane Bovary profile image

      Jane Bovary 7 years ago from The Fatal Shore


      Thanks. Your comments are interesting. There is certainly a detachment in them and I can understand why you would think them cold. They are, but I think there is a little bit of warmth in the human figures, who seem vulnerable to me. What about the you find that cold?


    • Rod Marsden profile image

      Rod Marsden 7 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

      A nice hub, Jane, as per usual.

      I have seen this art in Canberra and it strikes me as cold and for some reason makes me think of the novel and then the movie American Psycho.

      Yes very modern is a good way of describing these paintings and, despite the use of color, it is as friendly to the viewer as a block of ice in the heart of a terrible winter storm.

      We are transforming our landscape and are being lost in the high rise buildings and motorways we have created.

      In a sense this is horror art. It makes me shudder. This does not, of course, make it technically bad art. Good art calls for a reaction from the viewer. It gets a reaction from me.

    • Jane Bovary profile image

      Jane Bovary 7 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Haha, that's not're always out and about on that bike!


    • Micky Dee profile image

      Micky Dee 7 years ago

      Very nice hub Jane. I never knew of him. But I don't get out much. Thank you!

    • Jane Bovary profile image

      Jane Bovary 7 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      I know what you mean about the sweet melancholy..I see some of that in his self-portrait too. Maybe some of the optimism comes from the colours or even the statue in the background with the outstretched hands. It's hard to pinpoint it.

      I've never seen Samurai Jack but yes, there's a kind of cartoonishness about it, you're right. I really like the stillness, which I think gives it it's impact. Thanks for the interesting perspective jrsearm.

    • jrsearam profile image

      jrsearam 7 years ago from San Juan, PR

      I see significance in the fact that the man is standing, apparently waiting, at the mouth of a dark tunnel. The image fills me with an almost sweet melancholy but seems far from being sad. Something about the composition provides hope. The profound themes which the painting seems to inspire one to explore are attenuated or lightened by the landscape's "cartoonesque" quality. It kind of reminds me of Samurai Jack (don't know if you get that down under). While Smart's contribution may seem inherently Australian to his countrymen, as a non-Australian I can attest to its universality. I could swear I've seen the actual inspiration for 'Study for Holiday' in various locations around the world. Thanks for introducing us to Mr. Smart, Jane... blessings, JR

    • Jane Bovary profile image

      Jane Bovary 7 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Hi MPG..yes, I love that painting. You're right of's easy to be wise after the event. I've often wanted to buy paintings by seemingly obscure artists but just haven't had the money. Oh well.

    • MPG Narratives profile image

      Marie Giunta 7 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      What a magnificent painting of The Cahill Expressway, and I can see your friend kicking himself, I probably would have made the same decision though. Thanks for writing about Jeffrey Smart, he is a talented Australian painter who has chosen to live in another beautiful country.

    • Jane Bovary profile image

      Jane Bovary 7 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Hi De's my pleasure and thanks for the comment

    • Jane Bovary profile image

      Jane Bovary 7 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Nice to see you David. Thanks for popping in.

      Thanks Squirrel!

    • Jane Bovary profile image

      Jane Bovary 7 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      You're right drbj, in fact in his youth he wanted to be an shows. Thanks for the comment.

    • Jane Bovary profile image

      Jane Bovary 7 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Petrah, I think he's worth knowing about.Thanks!

    • Jane Bovary profile image

      Jane Bovary 7 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Cheeky Girl, I agree. I think his self-portrait is pretty great too. Thanks for the comment.

    • De Greek profile image

      De Greek 7 years ago from UK

      Thank you for introducing me to Jeffrey Smart. First time I came across his work :-)

    • squirrelstocks profile image

      squirrelstocks 7 years ago

      good one

    • David Stone profile image

      David Stone 7 years ago from New York City

      Nice info, Jane. Hadn't heard much about him but loved these examples.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 7 years ago from south Florida

      G'day Jane, To me, Jeffrey Smart has the eye of an architect and the soul of an artist - an unbeatable combination. Thank you for reminding me of this exceptional painter with these remarkable illustrations.

    • Petra Vlah profile image

      Petra Vlah 7 years ago from Los Angeles

      Great presentation of an artist I knew nothing about until now. Thank you

    • Cheeky Girl profile image

      Cassandra Mantis 7 years ago from UK and Nerujenia

      Fantastic Painter. Jeffrey Smart is a genius. I love his works, and the way he explores our relationship with outdoor space. Great hub!

    • Jane Bovary profile image

      Jane Bovary 7 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Lol Toby, Dame Edna is in no position to criticise..yes. I think in some paintings, such as Container Train, there is a definite Australian element but not particularly in most, except for maybe the light, which seems bright like an Australian sky.

      Thanks for reading.

    • profile image

      Toby Hansen 7 years ago

      This is the sort of thing makes me proud to have been born in this country.

      I really do not see how anyone - anywhere - could possibly look at Smart's works and not know instantly that they Australian.

      As for Dame Edna's opinion on ex-pats, she spends more time in London than Moonee Ponds these days, so she is hardly in position to comment!

      Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!


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