Past Catalogue | Menzies March 2016 Australian & International Fine Art & Sculpture | Date: 23 March, 2016

Lot 47
The Smile 2009
oil on linen
92.0 x 122.0 cm

signed lower left: Garry Shead


Gift from the artist to the present owner, Sydney, 2009 


Garry Shead: Precursive Paintings, Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide, 29 April - 24 May 2009, cat.8


Painted over two years from 2007-2009, Garry Shead’s The Smile contains numerous hints, allusions, and references to the artist’s personal life and to historical as well as literary events that concerned him at the time.

Shead became interested in the British author John Fowles (1926-2005), and in particular his post-modernist masterpiece and best-seller The Magus, published in 1965. Fowles and Shead shared an interest in the concept of Erato, the erotic muse, which has become one of the artist’s most enduring themes. The two met and formed a friendship. Shead completed a portrait and spent time with the writer before his death in 2005.  Later, he and a group of friends organised a trip to the Greek Island of Spetses, the setting of The Magus and were able to stay at the Villa Bourani, the setting for the book’s main action.

The painting shows a female figure in a deep sleep, being watched over by a stony smiling visage. In a manner which is reminiscent of paintings from his D.H. Lawrence series, Shead presents the scene in front of a building featuring  an arcaded terrace with a view to a twilight sky. The location, which can be identified by the distinctive arched colonnade as the Villa Bourani, also contains a table with a flower in a vase, some writing materials and some sheets of paper scattered about. In paintings from his Ern Malley series, completed by Shead several years earlier, the artist also draws on a literary source and here too we witness the act of writing. The characters play out a painting’s action as if it is happening in the same physical space as the writer who is setting it down.

It is the smiling face however, combined with the innocence of the sleeping figure that generates the enigmatic power of this painting. “Archaic Smile” is the name given to the distinctive expression frequently found on classical Greek kouros statues of the second quarter of the 6th century BC. It has been a rich source of academic discussion because it is such a distinctive feature of these statues which were created at a critical moment in the development of classical art, also because there is no agreement as to its origins or purpose. Opinion ranges from the banal to the sublime. On one hand, it is ‘the result of the technical difficulty in fitting the curved shape of the mouth to the somewhat block-like head of Archaic sculpture’1, while others have suggested that it was intended to convey  a sense of the figure being alive, or to infuse it with a sense of well-being. Art historians regard it as historically important inasmuch as it represents “a step towards naturalism”. Others question this last interpretation, noting that some examples, such as the case of a dying warrior “it is a mannerism for figures whose situation leaves nothing to smile at”.2

In chapter 23 of The Magus, Fowles describes the statue as being ‘full of the purest metaphysical good humour... timelessly intelligent and timelessly amused... because a star explodes and a thousand worlds like ours die, we know this world is. That is the smile: that what might not be, is. When I die, I shall have this by my bedside. It is the last human face I want to see’.3

For Shead, painting is a way to express an air of poetic uncertainty. As noted by his friend and scholar, Sasha Grishin, ‘the work thrives on ambiguity. When identities are not firmly fixed, then there is room for allegory and symbolism and the freedom of association which delivers a deeply personal reading uniquely relevant to each beholder.’4

1., accessed 23 February 16
2. Cook, R. M., Greek Art, its Development, Character and Influence, Penguin, London, 1972, p.99
3. Fowles, J., The Magus Triad Panther, London, 1978, chapter 23
4. Grishin, S., Precursive Pictures, exh. cat., Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide, 29 April - 24 May, 2009, n.p.

Timothy Abdallah BA