Menzies Art Brands

47. JEFFREY SMART, Jogger in Cathedral Street


Jeffrey Smart has been described as the ‘master of stillness’ renowned for his evocative and unique imagery depicting modern urban life.1 He is widely recognised as one of Australia’s most important expatriate painters through his considerable ability to capture in art the eternal, timeless quality of light coupled with his exquisite sense of composition. 

The last decade of the artist’s life was an incredibly productive period and in the prolific output of works painted between 2002 and his virtual retirement from painting in 2011 he achieved an even greater simplicity and refinement of form, distilling the essence of a subject to its bare geometric essentials, through works which are perfectly balanced and technically flawless. His commitment to refining the painting techniques he had employed since the 1960s and concentration on continuing to evolve the modern urban iconography developed over five decades confirm that the artist was at the height of his powers in his relentless pursuit to express a unique artistic vision of the world. 

The late works reveal Smart’s ongoing fascination with roads, traffic signs, trucks, factory facades, airports and deserted taxi ranks based on fleeting impressions of urban landscapes he had seen in Italy and Australia. Since settling permanently in Tuscany in 1971, Smart essentially inhabited both cultures. The proximity of his home and studio, Posticcia Nuova, to Arezzo enabled him to regularly view the fresco cycle by one of the great masters of the high Renaissance, Piero della Francesca, and one of Smart’s most admired painters. His base in Europe also allowed him to travel extensively and he regularly visited Europe’s art museums and opera houses as well as returning to Australia almost every year. Though he developed a simultaneous interest in urban sites based on locations he had seen in Italy in Australia it is not so much the exact sense of place that is important in his work as his astonishing ability to capture scenes from modern life in highly individual visual terms.  As Edmund Capon has commented ‘…his pictures are redolent with curiosity; the sense of place is forever ambiguous; but nonetheless we feel a sense of recognition, even familiarity.’2

Jogger in Cathedral Street, 2003 is a highly sophisticated, carefully constructed painting and is the culmination of Smart’s continuing exploration of visual forms which best captured what he described as the ‘beauty’ of modern city life. He wrote ‘The time has long passed when bluebells were the sort of thing you painted as examples of the beautiful. Most artists today don’t paint the cars we travel in, factories people work in, roads, road-signs, and airports we all use. I like living in the 21st century – to me the world has never been more beautiful. I am trying to paint the real world I live in, as beautifully as I can, with my own eye.’3 As if glimpsed through a car window, this view of a young man jogging through the inner city area around Woolloomooloo typically features humble and functional objects representing modern urban life including a road, footpath, traffic signs, post box, utility box and drain.  Rather than emphasising the ordinary nature of this subject Smart invests his motifs with an iconic status. He transforms this scene of everyday life into something quite extraordinary by drawing upon two quintessential icons of Australian culture – a bronzed Australian male athlete and an Australia Post box. The striped cap and 1940s-style sportswear worn by the jogger suggest Smart’s playful allusion to the ideal of the ‘heroic’ Bondi lifesaver represented in major paintings and photographs by Australian artists notably Charles Meere’s Australian beach pattern, 1940 and Max Dupain’s The sunbaker, 1937 (both in the Art Gallery of New South Wales). In a similar way, the subject is firmly anchored in modern Australian culture through the placement of the immediately identifiable red post box at the centre of the composition. In the context of Smart’s work, however, these icons appear as intriguing and mysterious symbols rather than objects invested with any specific meaning related to political or social issues in stark contrast to the representation of idealised masculine types celebrated by Meere and Dupain. 

Such enigmatic, strangely beautiful cityscapes by Smart featuring the human figure in motion are relatively rare though a direct parallel may be drawn with Morning jogger in parking garage, Adelaide,1987.4 In this earlier and more complicated work, an adolescent boy jogs through the middle of a car park surrounded by sharp, angular architectural forms including numbered pillars and a concrete staircase while storm clouds gather behind this bizarre scene on the distant horizon. By contrast, the ‘action’ in Jogger in Cathedral Street is concentrated in the immediate foreground. The narrow spatial depth of the painting is defined by the austere geometric form of the domestic building behind the jogger. Integral to both works is the importance of light, the moment at which light falls on the figure at a particular time of day to reveal the motif. The physical movement of the jogger appears almost identical in both paintings and there is similar sense of the figure frozen in motion but, as has recently been suggested, a more subtle and effective tension is created through the figure in the present work between stability and movement, reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s Study from the human body, 1949 (National Gallery of Victoria).5

Smart creates a perfect sense of balance and harmony through the placement of two figures at the extreme edges of the composition. A partial, fragmented glimpse of a woman peering nonchalantly through a window - a familiar motif in Smart’s work - is juxtaposed with the jogger whose hand touches the far left edge of the canvas, inviting our gaze to wander forwards and backwards across this frieze-like composition of seemingly unrelated figures and symbols. It is the figures who breathe life and introduce a human element into this familiar yet enigmatic scene. They are both an essential part of the work and the dynamic symmetry of the composition could not have been achieved without one or the other but, above all, it is the random nature of their relationship and their emotional disengagement from their surroundings that creates a suspended sense of narrative and which instils in the viewer a certain feeling of disquiet. The soft morning light casts a warm orange glow as well as a sharp jagged shadow over the fading façade of the uniquely Australian dwelling with its corrugated-iron roof reminding us immediately of a sunny morning in Sydney. Yet it is also the dominating quality of the light which imbues this scene with a sense of enduring mystery and timeless serenity that, like so much of Smart’s work, is entirely absorbing and captivating. 


1. Pearce, B., Master of stillness: Jeffrey Smart paintings 1940-2011, Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 2012 

2. Capon, E., Jeffrey Smart, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 27 August – 31 October 1999, p.11 

3. Jeffrey Smart, quoted in Barry Pearce, Jeffrey Smart, Beagle Press, Roseville, 2005, p.8 

4. Allen, C., Jeffrey Smart: unpublished paintings 1940-2007, Australian Galleries, Melbourne, 2008, p.41 

5. Grishin, S., ‘Jeffrey Smart’s eternal order of light and balance’, Jeffrey Smart paintings and studies 2002-3, Australian Galleries, Sydney, 23 September – 18 October 2003, p.13

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