As a young man Jeffrey Smart declared that he had painted his last billabong forever. Turning his back upon the Australian landscape, he instead sought new kind of beauty in the prosaic material of the modern industrial landscape – roadways, factories, apartment buildings. Smart approaches his compositions with the idea of construction. Forms are analysed into geometric shapes and carefully placed to build a harmonious composition. Colours are reduced into primaries and balanced against mid-tones. Yet despite this compositional rigor and clarity, Smart’s works generate a sense of mystery and unknowing. Elements within the works are often partially obscured from view or else Smart creates startling juxtapositions of scale. Figures are observed as though caught in time and a sense of the absurd pervades these apparently innocuous scenes.
This painting has become an iconic work of the Australian city and a talisman of urban isolation. The setting is the stylized entrance to the Cahill Expressway in Sydney which was completed in early 1962 amid much controversy. The focus of the work is the enigmatic figure of a middle aged man who appears dwarfed by his surroundings. He stands on the edge of the sweeping curve of the roadway which descends into the gloom of the tunnel. Against the skyline is the rear view of Bertram Mackennal’s Shakespeare Memorial, whose gesticulating figure appears more animated than the suited man below. We are given no clue as to why the man is there; instead the work opens up a myriad of narrative possibilities which are left unanswered.
Text © National Gallery of Victoria, Australia