Jeffrey Smart

Learning Resource

The small figure of a bald man in a dark suit stands in the lower right hand corner of this painting. He is dwarfed by a road leading to an overpass behind him. Apartment buildings rise into a stormy sky in the top left hand corner.

Jeffrey Smart
Cahill Expressway


Cahill Expressway
1962 Gadigal Country/Sydney
oil on plywood
81.9 x 111.3 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased 1963
© The Estate of Jeffrey Smart

‘Against that looping dynamic stand insistent verticals – lamp standards, the leg of a traffic sign, walls – and a disorienting, juddering multiplicity of horizons: the top of the library hoarding; the crest of the road; the line of the guardrail; the slight angle of the sign,’ writes art historian David Hansen.

Smart’s paintings often depict solitary figures within a cityscape, which you can see in this 1962 work Cahill Expressway. The eerie, dreamlike quality of the painting suggests a story without giving away the beginning or end.

This painting has many shapes in it. Look carefully and describe some of the shapes you can see.

Describe the colours in the painting. What sort of day do they depict?

Look at the different lines in this painting. How is the composition divided?

What do you notice about the figure in the painting? What questions do you have about this person?

Like many of his contemporaries, Smart was inspired by the poetry of TS Eliot and the plays by Samuel Beckett and Tennessee Williams in which the ordinary person is well-meaning yet pitiable and absurd. How would you describe the man in the painting, Cahill Expressway?

Sound artist Martin Kay has created a composition in response to Smart’s Cahill Expressway. Listen to Kay’s piece and see if you can recognise parts of the painting.

Think about the landscape in which you live. From memory, draw the area outside your home. What features of this landscape interest you? Imagine something you could add to your street to tell a story. How can you use colour and shape in your drawing to tell the story of your place?

Design your ideal city, including shops, schools, playgrounds, green areas and transport links. How could your design improve a sense of agency for the citizens? If you have time, make a three-dimensional model of your ideal city out of recycled materials. Find more inspiration from Bodys Isek Kingelez’s fantastical models of African cities. (See link below).

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From the Audio Tour:

Music composed by Martin Kay

Hello my name is Martin Kay. The following composition incorporates solid vibration sound recordings of the Nambu expressway in Seoul, South Korea. The passing of traffic resonating through the architecture of the overpass renders a voice for the mysterious and eternal character embedded in this Cahill Expressway landscape.

When asked about the meaning of his work, Smart would often insist he was only interested in geometry and composition. In 1999 he said: ‘The truth is I put figures in mainly for scale … The fat man in the dark suit, in various guises, is in many of my paintings, because a strong black vertical rectangle with a bald head is a lovely shape.’ Yet the mysterious one-armed subject and deserted urban setting invite more imaginative interpretations. This figure has been linked to the modernist poet TS Eliot’s character J Alfred Prufrock as well as to the English film director, producer, and screenwriter, Alfred Hitchcock, who often featured himself as a cameo in his own films.