Menzies Art Brands



Jeffrey Smarts Mother and Child of 2000 hides an important secret. It contains a very revealing number.

A number, that is, which is painted on the front of the partially out-of-frame blue bus depicted on the far right of the canvas. The number 943 is clearly seen on the lower right front panel of the bus no other bus in the painting bears a number of any sort.

The full significance of the number is highly esoteric, but unraveling its symbolic content decodes the wider meaning of the present painting. It also highlights the paintings intriguing ingenuity and unique aesthetic attraction.

The number 943 refers to a passage in the Bibles Book of Revelations (Revelation 22: 6, AR 943), ostensibly written by St. John the Apostle on the Greek island of Patmos sometime around 81-96 AD. The specific text states: And the Lord God of the holy prophets hath sent His angel to show His servants the things which must be done quickly.

The passage 943 is most usually associated, especially in art history, with the warning to hurriedly flee Nazareth given by an angel to Joseph and the Virgin Mary with the infant Christ. The urgent warning was occasioned by the Magis witnessing of the Massacre of the Innocents, after visiting King Herod the Great in Jerusalem (Matthew 2: 16 Matthew 2:18), and by Gods instruction through His angel. The entire episode, outlined in Matthew 2: 13, is commonly known as the Flight into Egypt.

Thus considered, Smarts remarkably original painting, created in the maturity of his seventy-ninth year, depicts an analogous contemporary Flight into Egypt that is, it pictorially represents a move away from threat, and away from the type of industrial savagery that spells a danger to innocence. The paintings understated visual power rests upon this transposing of the ancient into the modern.

In other words, what we have in Smarts Mother and Child of 2000 is a poignant parable that arose from a form of visual paraphrase. It appropriates a well-known visualised story that, despite its many religious depictions in art history, here zooms-in upon the pointed oddness of being born into an inhospitable contemporary world a world of over-industrialised bleakness, rampant pollution and social incivility. A world, in other words, not fit for any child. The painting almost winces at the contrast between the warm tenderness of humanity in the foreground and the cold inhumanity of its technoscape background.

All of these content-based observations are mental components that are slotted together to form the whispered message of this subtle yet striking painting.

Consider the following: if one peers intently at the lower right section of the painting, with its central group of a mother, father and child, and notes its focus on the gentle interaction between the figures, one senses that its compositional and pictorial contrasts are born of a thinking mans reflections. Note, for example, how the brooding polluted sky does not just dominate the scene, it looms large over it; the figures do not stand in a lush green field, but on a dull tarmac parking lot; they are not taking a holiday for there are no happy smiles (and no baggage); they do not stand in sunshine, but upon the fateful threshold of a dark shadow and, tellingly, they do not pause at the ancient Temple of Jerusalem, but stand in front of a large central gasometer.

All in all, the paintings elements seem to bristle with the oddities of contemporary urban life. In other words, Smarts Mother and Child of 2000 seems to pulse with what can only be described as a delicious emotional tension.

One might go even further into the then seventy-nine year old artists creative mind and ask whether the conceptual seed of his Mother and Child of 2000 did not find its deeper origin in the strangeness of Piero della Francescas (1450/20-1492, Italian) painting Ideal City of 1470 in the Galleria Nazionale della Marche in Urbino, with its central gasometer-like temple and its bleak unpeopled silence - as is well-known, Piero was Smarts favourite artist.1

Whatever the case, there is little doubt that Smarts Mother and Child of 2000 is a masterpiece of sober rumination it gathers together wry observations; it conjures up associations; it engages with its imagistic history; it is geared up by precisely tuned thought and propelled by concise pictorial expression.

These compelling attributes come more into focus when contrasted with two instructive comparisons. In Smarts Jogger in Cathedral Street of 2003 we are presented with a much more formal study whose interest lies chiefly in the compositional arrangements of the pictorial elements of the canvas. For example, the way the leaning angle of the jogging figure to the left aligns with the line of the angled shadow of an adjoining wall. Furthermore, the ways the bisected composition is carefully layered with squares and rectangles to introduce an almost abstract harmony and shallow spatial depth into the painting, all show Smarts preoccupation with a mural-like structuring of elements in this particular painting. Likewise, in Smarts The City Bus Station of 1985-1986 the composition is caught more in the manner of a droll observation glimpsed in a suburban bus parking lot. The paintings bright colours and radiating lines invest it with a high-keyed optical richness that draws attention to compositional features, to patterns, to graduated spacing but, not to any brooding back-story or sense of aesthetic menace.

It is this sense of brooding aesthetic menace - a delicious emotional tension that elevates Smarts Mother and Child of 2000 beyond the norm.

Furthermore, the best of Smarts compositions are always arresting and mysterious. They are driven by an inner love of deflected meaning, of ambiguity and a desire to capture and then convey an aesthetic stillness or, rather, a sense of pictorial immobility as though images are caught on canvas as they were once caught in the artists mind. This quality of pictorial apprehension lends a type of additional visual presence to accomplished paintings such as his Mother and Child of 2000.

Also, it is worth recalling that Smarts paintings are never replications of what he has seen but always very much thought into existence. There is always the feeling of a hidden visual power. Somehow, behind the visible scene there is the invisible mind that orders and confers meaning. Fundamentally, he wanted to be moved by things so that others could be moved by his things always theres the visual transmission of an idea. Theres this and always a sense of an understanding compassion. Smart himself tacitly confirmed these observations when he wrote as long ago as 1968:

I find myself moved by man in his new violent environment. I want to paint this explicitly and beautifully.2

By violent, Smart here means modern urban and metropolitan environments that are far from the unhurried and relaxed comforts of small villages, farms, vineyards and pastoral vistas. Smarts painting Mother and Child of 2000, held in just one collection since its creation, is a very significant distillation of all these important artistic aims and aesthetic attributes bound together with a highly perceptive grasp of historical precedents.

The caught quality and visual presence, important hallmarks of the best of Smarts paintings, underscore the aesthetic impact and emotional resonance of his singular Mother and Child of 2000. It is, in short, one of Jeffrey Smarts most intellectually evocative paintings.


1. There is now some doubt about the creator of the painting. It was once thought to be painted by Luciano Laurana (1439-1501; then by Francesco de Giorgio (1420-1479) or Piero della Francesco (1415/20-1492). The point remains that in Smarts time it was generally thought to be by the latter. The controversy has resurfaced most recently during and after the major exhibition Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Florence held at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, USA, 1 February 1 May 2015 and The Uffizi, Florence, 23 June 27 September 2015

2. Smart in Drury, N., Images 2: Contemporary Australian Painting, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1998



Capon, E., Jeffrey Smart Retrospective, Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1999

Drury, N., Images 2: Contemporary Australian Painting, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1998

Hughes, R., The Art of Australia, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1970

McDonald, J., Jeffrey Smart: Paintings of the 70s and 80s, Sydney, Craftsman House, 1990

Pearce, B., Jeffrey Smart, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2005

Quartermaine, P., Jeffrey Smart, Melbourne, Gryphon Books, 1983

Smart, J., Not Quite Straight, Heinemann, Melbourne, 1996


Associate Professor Ken Wach
(Dip. Art; T.T.T.C.; Fellowship RMIT; MA; PhD.)
Former Principal Research Fellow and Head of the School of Creative Arts
The University of Melbourne.


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