Menzies Art Brands

Head of Art’s Choice - June Auction


Head of Art’s Choice Part One

The appreciation of Jeffrey Smart’s paintings came to me fairly late. I think it’s safe to say there is no other artist, the possible exception being Arthur Boyd, where I am as conscious of having seen the light and gained appreciation after for a long time of wrongly neglecting or misunderstanding the artist and his work.

It seems to be a natural consequence of my earlier ignorance that my current position is a kind of reaction or over-correction: I am now Smart’s greatest fan.  There are very few Smarts that I would not be proud to hang on my best wall. I always perk up whenever there is one in our auctions because I know that I will have the opportunity to come to really close quarters with work that always stands up to heavy scrutiny and penetrating examination.

Over the years I have, like many fans formed a list of the artist’s greatest pictures, a top ten, a list of must haves. Among my all-time favourites are Night Stop in Bombay 1981 (private collection); The Traveller 1973 (Queensland Art Gallery); The Underpass 1986-7 (Parliament House Art Collection, Canberra) and Autobahn in the Black Forest II 1979-80 (private collection). In the list is Holiday, 1971 (Lot 37 in the Menzies June 2013 Auction). 

Smart is in the habit of painting several types of work. Level crossings, Trucks, Railway carriages and Roads are his staple diet and have all been covered in paintings from the 1950’s and are well represented amongst his latest works as well. But Smart always reserves the right to produce something completely outré as well. I am thinking of his recent Drive in Cinema of 2004, The Hotel Indonesia of 1975, and perhaps the best known of all the outrés, his famous Portrait of Clive James painted in 1991-2. These are provocative, assertively individualistic, and often witty. They are not to everyone’s taste and occasionally they are the ones that Smart’s dealers find the hardest to sell. And yet these are also Smart’s most rewarding and durable works, and are an essential component to this artist’s position. They contribute a very large amount to our understanding of his work in general and his work would be very much diminished without them. I hesitate to say that Holiday belongs to the outrés, because that might be damning it with faint praise. It’s a major work, included in every book, exhibited at all of the retrospectives, including the latest at Tarrawarra, and definitely in my and probably other’s top tens, and yet it is also unlike any other Smart painting that I know. The reason for this is the sheer physicality of the work, the sense of physical protrusion caused by the way the balconies pop out at you. Like many Smart paintings it reveals a little of Smart’s current interests, arguments and pre-occupations in the world of contemporary art, which in this case would include the then current European interest in Op art.

Tim Abdallah, Head of Art


Head of Art’s Choice Part 2

Whenever a painter who has become famous for a particular subject does something different, it presents an opportunity to learn something about the artist’s methods as well as get an insight into the approach they take to their pet subject as well. Margaret Olley is famous for her still-life and interiors of her home in Paddington. Lot 52 The Card Players is a rare, substantial and ambitious figure composition of a group of card players painted in 1966.

Olley turns several art world conventions on their head. Card player paintings were staple diet of the Dutch masters of the 17th century, where the participants normally perform allegorical roles. It’s all about the corruption of innocent youth, the vagaries of fortune and so forth. The subject was also a favourite for Cézanne, and more recently in Australian art, Albert Tucker’s series of Card players evokes the desperate gamblers, pioneers, chancers, opportunists and windfalls of the early days of Australia. Olley’s painting is quite different. It reminds me a little of Russell Drysdale’s outback character studies and yet the grave and noble serenity of the scene is actually closer in mood to Ray Crooke’s work. In any event the painting demonstrates that she, more than any of her Australian contemporaries, had the skill and technique to produce a painting of this wonderful complexity.

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