Menzies Art Brands



Grace Cossington Smith came late to fame. In 1973, Daniel Thomas, senior curator of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, organised a national touring retrospective and, at eighty-one, Cossington Smith emerged from obscurity as a major Australian modernist painter. Despite leading an uneventful life in Sydneys suburbia with her sisters, Cossington Smith was a post-Impressionist par excellence, specialising, in her later years, in glowing interiors and lusciously painted still lifes. Not only was the overall quality of Cossington Smiths work strong, but she produced a sizeable oeuvre of several hundred works. As Sasha Grishin notes, she arrived at her finest work late in her career.1

Still Life with Lilies essays her strengths: a confident but exquisite handling of paint in blunt, semi-abstract brushstrokes, an assured but delicate feeling for form and a vibrant subtle handling of colour. Cossington Smith painted what was close to her in this case Arum lilies picked from her garden. A humble, simple existence offered her imagination great riches, and she knew how to get the best from both her subject matter and its formal qualities. Colour, she noted, was her chief interest...The colour has to shine; light must be in it.2

Bernard Smith, in his classic work Australian Painting (1962), had singled out Cossington Smiths rare talent and commitment to modernism when he reproduced in colour The Sock Knitter 1915 (Art Gallery of New South Wales collection), acquired two years previously. It was Cossington Smiths first exhibited painting and, as Thomas comments, remarkably accomplished for someone who had only begun to paint the previous year.3

Cossington Smith attended Antonio Dattilo-Rubbos (1879-1955) Sydney art school where fellow students included Roy de Maistre (1894-1968) and Roland Wakelin (1887-1971), also leading figures in Australian post-Impressionism. Inspired by Dattilo-Rubbos enthusiasm for contemporary art as well as by the books and reproductions brought back to Sydney by Norah Simpson (1895-1974), Cossington Smith forged her distinctive modernist style.

The 1960s marked the gradual appreciation of Cossington Smiths work, underpinned by Thomas championing of the artist. While Sydney painters, such as John Olsen (born 1928)and Syd Ball (1933-2017), were at that time influenced by European and American styles of abstraction, Cossington Smith continued to revel in the aesthetic opportunities her vision of post-Impressionism offered. But the 1960s were also a tragic time with the deaths of her beloved sister Charlotte and brother, Gordon. The artist, now frail, required surgery after breaking her hip.

Still Life with Lilies is a memento of Cossington Smiths oeuvre at a key phase of transition in the mid-1960s, the last great period of expansion before she retired from art in the 1970s. The work has a radiant energy, created by the dense but airy web of paint strokes that makes it seem anything but still. Characteristically for her still lifes of this era, soft layers of fabric surround the vase. They seem almost liquid, like coloured streams of light washing down and around the central, organising, rectangular shape of the vase with its three rearing lilies. The lilies energy symbolises the life force of nature which, for Cossington Smith, had a spiritual value. Her personal philosophy about art was expressing things unseen the golden thread running
though time.4

1. Grishin, S., Australian Art: A History, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2013, p.214
2. Cossington Smith, G., interview with de Berg, H., 16 August 1965, quoted in Thomas D., Grace Cossington Smith, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1973, p.6
3. Thomas, D., op.cit., Grace Cossington Smith, p.6
4. Cossington Smith, G., Personal art philosophy, quoted in Thomas D., op cit., p.6

Dr Janine Burke Honorary Senior Fellow
Victorian College of the Arts
University of Melbourne

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