Jeffrey Smart

Learning Resource

A painting of a man lying in a field of yellow grass on a hill. At the top of the hill stands a transmission tower in front of a stormy sky.

Jeffrey Smart
The listeners

1965

The listeners
1965 Rome, Italy
oil on canvas
91.5 x 71 cm
Art Gallery of Ballarat, Ballarat
The William, Rene and Blair Ritchie Collection.
Bequest of Blair Ritchie 1998
© The Estate of Jeffrey Smart
1998.23


‘New technologies of satellite and radio dishes were integral to dramatic changes in communications in the twentieth century, creating a global interconnectedness. They also engendered a sense of the real world becoming more like science fiction,’ writes exhibition curator Deborah Hart.

A radar dish sits ominously behind the figure at the centre of Smart’s The listeners. A wind appears to rustle the long grass as the darkened sky looms overhead, creating a sense of foreboding.

Thinking about the title of this work, what can you find in this painting that references listening, observing or surveillance? Do you, as the viewer, also play a role in this dynamic?

Discuss the ideas presented in The listeners. Are they still relevant today?

Listen to the sound work by Alexandra Spence, made in 2021. What contemporary ideas do you think Spence is exploring, inspired by Smart’s work from 1965?

Watch the preview for Catherine Hunter’s film Master of stillness – Jeffrey Smart. What are the everyday things around you that could represent recent technologies or modern society? Plan a composition that portrays these objects or ideas using pencils and paper.

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From the Audio Tour:

Music composed by Alexandra Spence

The presence of the transmission tower and the thick grey storm clouds lead me to consider the signals that occur in our everyday lives but exist outside our perception. Using a receiver I recorded crackly, whistly, electromagnetic sounds emanating from lightning storms, telegraph wires, and electronic devices.

At the height of the Cold War—a period of tense rivalry between the United States of America, the Soviet Union and their allies from 1946 to 1991—radars and satellites allowed countries to spy on each other in increasingly sophisticated ways. This technology also played a part in the Space Race of the mid-1950s when the United States and the Soviet Union competed to launch spacecraft, probes and satellites into space. The radar dishes and control towers in Smart’s paintings suggest the transmission and reception of surveillance signals. The male figure in The listeners turns his head towards a radar dish and listens intently. In turn, the distant radar dish is also listening.