The Age | Seeing like Jeffrey Smart: how empty streets gave me a new insight

Jeffrey Smart, Cahill Expressway (1962), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. CREDIT:© NATIONAL GALLERY OF VICTORIA, MELBOURNE.

There was both rain and sunshine; buildings and roads appeared brighter than the darkened clouds. In a strange stillness, I was the only figure walking through an awkward meeting point of freeways and overpasses in South Melbourne. It felt entirely real, and unreally cinematic. I thought of two images: the first was a girl in a pink dress, calling out in the wind, framed by an aqua barrier and roadwork signage. The second is iconic: a man stands near the yellow-brown entrance of the Cahill Expressway in Sydney. Both scenes have trademark grey skies and sunlight. They are also Jeffrey Smart paintings.

I have never quite understood Smart. His famous gaze — his capturing of what are called “stark” and “alienating” urban and industrial landscapes — didn’t feel convincing. Yet this was the year I began walking, which meant being in landscapes. Daily exercise is now a necessity, but I had been walking since January after the swift end of an eight-year relationship. I trudged from Brunswick to Collingwood, Footscray to South Wharf. By the time the first lockdown struck, I was already well-acquainted with solitude.

Did Smart know about heartbreak or walking? He certainly knew about the former. In his reasonably witty autobiography Not Quite Straight, he writes with equal flippancy, knowing self-pity and small tragedy: “Anyone who survives a terrible separation should be awarded a lovely prize — a medallion and a blue ribbon. Don’t we all deserve something?”

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