Jeffrey Smart’s 1962 painting Cahill Expressway features an obscured, bald, rotund, Alfred Hitchcock-like man under the Cahill Expressway in Sydney in the right middle ground of the painting. The background consists of a cloudy sunrise broken up with street lamps, skyscraping buildings behind a modest construction site in the left background and a statue in the right. The severe curve of the ramp is illuminated with a Naples yellow that is echoed in the sidewalk, street lines, and sky. Along with these variations of yellow, the main colors of the work are dull gray of the road and the scattered street lamps and soft browns and ochre on the backing architecture and statue. There are also dashes of muted tones like the steel blue of the man’s suit, the washy rose of the buildings, and the viridian green shade on the underside of the tunnel.
Like Smart’s Factory and Staff, Erehwyna (1972,) this simplistic image was also featured on two separate collections of short stories: The Fat Man in History and Expressway (McDonald, 9). Evidently, Smart’s eerily plausible paintings “are appropriate for fiction and poetry because they act as mysterious open-ended narratives, capable of stimulating the reader’s imagination before he or she even opens the book” (McDonald, 10). The viewer has no idea that this man is, let alone his significance (if he has any,) why he is standing under the expressway, or where he may go next.
Smart’s paintings transform from being familiar scene in society to something somewhat surreal because of the “exacting composition, manipulation of the light and atmosphere, and a taste for striking juxtapositions of the old and new, the revered and the banal, he makes us see things as we have never seen them before” (McDonald, 10). However, Smart contests his main artistic influences are the renowned realist artists: Brian Dunlop and William Delafield-Cook (McDonald, 11). Smart practices “a kind deadpan realism colored with surrealism; the pop element is in his constant flirtation with abstraction. There is a deep ambivalence in his work, between formalism and social observation,” in Cahill Expressway, Smart “captures something of the cold and impassive surface of modern city” (Allen, 170).
Smart may employ figures in his paintings to show the differentiation in the scale between the human figure and the architecture surrounding it—“in a post-industrial society, man is no longer the measure of all things” (McDonald, 42). Smart admits he adds figures to paintings mainly for scale, naming Le Corbusier as his chief influence in this aspect of his work. In reference to his eye-catching figures, Smart said: “I try not to make them too interesting; they are never beautiful or sexy” (Capon, 92). Although the figure may be calculated and uninspiring, his face is “the one bright spot in a seemingly desolate urban landscape” (Quartermaine, 57).
Smart’s paintings can seem unchallenging or even boring, but with this painting Smart is acting as a “social critic making bleak statements about urban alienation;” Smart saw the entire construction of the expressway during his stay in Sydney from 1951 until 1963 (McDonald, 11). Smart was part of the modernist movement: he wrote art criticism for the Daily Telegraph, regularly appeared on a radio program on Australian Broadcasting Commission that transitioned to a television program in 1954 (McDonald, 10-11). Smart may also be responding to the movement of the mid-1960s towards the “rigorous purification of the medium of painting, an elimination of all extraneous matter, all vestiges of figuration…the ‘current of history’ became absolute: for the first time it seemed possible to escape from Australia altogether, and inhabit art history itself” (Allen, 171). Smart may be suggesting that the motorways and apartment blocks in the urban environment can be just as beautiful as the landscapes and just as interesting as a character.
Christopher Allen, “Art in Australia: From Colonization to Postmodernism,” Thames and Hudson, London, 1997, pp. 170-171
Edmund Capon, “Jeffrey Smart: Retrospective,” The Beagle Press, Melbourne, 1999, pp. 92
John McDonald, “Jeffrey Smart: Paintings of the 70’s and 80’s,” Craftsman House, 1990, Rosevilles, pp. 9-13, 42-43
Peter Quartermaine, “Jeffrey Smart,” Gryphon Books, Victoria, 1983, pp. 57