Menzies Art Brands



An alternative title for this painting might be Edward Hopper Goes to Bondi Beach. Jeffrey Smarts admiration for the American artist is well known, and they share many of the same compositional devices. Like Hopper, Smart stuck to his guns as a realist painter in an era in which abstract art got all the attention. One may see the pressure artists felt to go over to the abstract camp in certain works by Fred Williams and Arthur Boyd, who will be forever known as figurative painters. In global terms the best example is American artist, Philip Guston, who spent a decade as an Abstract Expressionist before reverting to a boldly figurative style in 1970, earning negative reviews and losing many friends.

Smart dabbled in abstraction during in his early years in Adelaide, but any doubts he may have entertained about the viability of image-making were laid to rest during his first long trip to Italy in 1950. While residing on the island of Ischia he made frequent visits to the Naples Archaelogical Museum, where he studied the Roman mosaic copies of lost Greek paintings. He found it tremendously heartening that the ancient Greeks had been realists.

By 1962, Smart had spent more than a decade in Sydney, where he worked as an art critic for the Daily Telegraph, hosted the childrens art show, The Argonauts, on ABC Radio and TV, and taught at the National Art School and at The Kings School, Parramatta. As an artist, he established his reputation with regular shows at the Macquarie Galleries. He was busy, but constantly dreaming of Italy, and becoming increasingly desperate to get away.

One can sense his eagerness in the word ROMA, wistfully graffitied on the concrete wall that occupies a good half of this painting. He would finally depart at the end of 1963, and by 1965 was settled permanently in Italy; first in Rome, then in the Tuscan farmhouse that would remain his home for the rest of his life.
The paintings Smart made in Italy would blend antiquity and modernity in a skilful, ironic manner. The highways, television towers and apartment blocks he depicted had a special dissonance in a country with such a powerful cultural heritage. By comparison, the pictures produced in Sydney during the 1950s and early 60s are more Hopperesque, often featuring solitary figures in an urban landscape.

One feels the cultural barrenness of Australia gnawing away at the artists soul in these paintings. He was longing to be back in Europe, where he could see great works of art and enjoy a very different lifestyle. As a simple point of comparison, Australia had hardly produced a major feature film since World War II, whereas Italy was in the midst of one of the boom periods of world cinema. As a painter whose images were often compared with film stills, Smart was only too aware of what it meant when even this most popular artform was so sorely neglected.

One may feel this sense of creeping melancholy in the image of a lone bather on perennially crowded Bondi Beach, her face concealed by the dress she is pulling over her head. The female figure is a nod towards Hopper, as is the composition, in which the middle ground is eliminated by the wall that cuts across the picture plane, leaving only the figure in the foreground, with a background of blue sky punctuated by a streetlamp, a parking sign and a seagull.

Is this supposed to be a lonely image? Hopper complained that the loneliness thing was overdone when people wrote about his pictures, and the same holds true for Smart. It was a source of frustration for the artist when his paintings were viewed as images of alienation, with all the existentialist trimmings.
He saw them in quite a different light, as things of beauty.

And so, we might see the bather, not as a lonely figure on a desolate beach, but as a budding Venus being spied upon as she sheds her outer garments. Smart slyly makes his viewers into voyeurs, able to study the body offered to our gaze, while we remain invisible.

Finally, as there is rarely a painting by Jeffrey Smart without some private joke or hidden allusion, the artists archivist, Stephen Rogers, has a theory about this image.1 It all stems from a drawing Smart made on the back of a picture by Donald Friend that was hung in the guest room in Tuscany. Its the buxom woman referred to in Smarts notes for the preliminary drawing for The Bather, Bondi, reproduced in in the book, Jeffrey Smart: Drawings and Studies 1942-2001. There he writes: In the painting I add a buxom woman taking off a multi-coloured dress, obscuring her face.2

Under the drawing on the verso of the Friend picture, Smart has written the name Marilyn. Its probably not coincidental that Marilyn Monroe was found dead on 5 August 1962, and the painting first exhibited on 11 November that year. Smart was known for including surreptitious portraits of figures such as Charles De Gaulle, Alma Mahler, and Queen Elizabeth II, so its not impossible that Marilyn Monroe, her face obscured by the shroud of a multi-coloured dress, might be captured here making a farewell appearance on Bondi Beach.

1. Stephen Rogers, in email correspondence with the author, May 2023
2. Smart, J., Jeffrey Smart: Drawings and Studies 1942-2002, Australian Galleries, Melbourne, 2001, p.61

John McDonald
John McDonald is the author of Jeffrey Smart: Paintings of the 70s and 80s. He writes a weekly art column for the Sydney Morning Herald and a weekly film column for the Australian Financial Review.

We use our own and third party cookies to enhance your experience of our site, analyse site usage, and assist in our marketing. By continuing to use our site you consent to the use of cookies. Please refer to our privacy and cookie policy.