A one-armed man in a blue suit stands alone at the mouth of an expressway tunnel. Before him, the road curves around and down into the shadows. Above him, the expressway rises upwards, towards a railing, a sculpture (seen from behind), and a cluster of high-rise buildings.
The roads are empty; what look to be roadworks by the apartments are abandoned.
It looks, for all the world, like a city in lockdown.
But the painting, one of the Australian artist Jeffrey Smart's best-known, was created in 1962 - a year of many twists and turns, to be sure, but a global pandemic was not one of them.
Even two years ago, Cahill Expressway, along with many of Smart's works, would have been safely described variously as dystopian, unsettling, surreal, bleak, enigmatic, and uncanny.
But perfectly suited to our times? One would have had cause to worry had Smart's saturated, spare landscapes, and precisely composed urban vignettes been able to bring the same pang of recognition they do at this precise moment.
It is, however, purely coincidental - either good fortune or bad luck, depending which way you look - that the National Gallery of Australia is staging a major retrospective of Jeffrey Smart's work while Australia emerges from the various surges of the coronavirus pandemic that is still convulsing many parts of the world.
Such exhibitions are years in the planning; this one involves more than 120 words, and more than 50 public and private lenders. It has only been delayed by months, rather than years, which is all the better, as when it finally opens on December 11, it will still be in Smart's centenary year, as intended.
But still, as co-curator Deborah Hart points out, it feels prescient to be showing the full-career spectrum of Smart's works in a year when they feel so fresh, immediate and open to new interpretations. And it isn't just the empty streets and looming skies that will resonate with recent experience; Smart saw beauty in many different urban iterations, and while his style morphed considerably from the 1950s to the 60s and beyond, there are certain threads - a commitment to composition and abstraction - that can be seen running throughout his works.
Born in Adelaide in 1921, Smart studied and taught art there, developing his early connection to urban environments. He had moved as a child from the conservative suburbs into the city, during the Depression, and, Hart says, he was baffled that his parents always longed to return to their suburban comfort.
"He really kind of had the run of the city - you have this wonderful sense of him on his bicycle riding around Adelaide," she says.
"And these are things that he familiarised himself with in his art, and he would go to the cinema as a teenager and British films that he saw already were playing on his imagination."
Smart left for Europe in 1948 to study art in Paris, and returned to Australia, this time to Sydney, in 1951. It was here that his palette shifted, to what Hart describes as "an increased focus on the uncanny and the theatrical."
He didn't paint many self-portraits, but one from 1951, Self-portrait, Procida, encapsulates everything he would become known for - surrealism, precise mise-en-scene, and dreamlike atmosphere. The sky is dark, his face - a portrait within a portrait, hanging on a white stretched canvas - is neutral, there are seemingly unrelated but precisely placed objects scattered before it, and in the distance, a mysterious and out-of-place figure, this time a woman in an orange dress.
"You really get the sense of him trying to find his way, trying to find that distinctive vision...I think it was really about finding the subject matter that appealed to him that was about that urban environment, but also wanting to imbue that with a kind of presence and a stillness and an energy," Hart says.
"Somehow, the stillness and the energy play off one another in his work, and in the middle room of the exhibition is where we really see Jeffrey finding his artistic vision that was embedded in those early years."
Co-curator Rebecca Edwards says the exhibition will be a revelation for even the most avid Smart-watchers.
"People often think of these works of urban scenes, but there's often so much more going on," she says.
"The other kind of thread of his practice is, surprisingly, despite really realistic imagery, this kind of interest in form and abstraction and composition-making. It's present from the very, very beginning in Adelaide.
"He was having formal lessons with Dorrit Black, a female modernist artist who studied in Europe, with Cubist artists exploring French modernism. And she taught him really early the importance of composition making, making a picture, thinking about form and the arrangement of form and colour first and foremost, before the subject and the narrative.
"Those two ideas are always working in tandem in his work, but it's something I think people can quite easily overlook, because the images themselves are so mysterious, and so enigmatic. But it is a thread that continues the whole way through."
Even in the late 1940s, when he was studying with the modernist Fernand Leger, he was placing himself "firmly at the centre" of new movements in French modernism.
"What you do see, particularly in these saturated images, they start to spring up in the 60s and 70s, and if you think more broadly about what's happening in art practice at that time, that's when you had the rise of hard-edged, colour-filled abstract painting, with these big, bold graphic images with sweeping planes of colour, hard, slick edges, primary colours.
"And in many ways, even though his work still remains really figurative, you can see that he's gesturing towards those same motifs, those same compositional constructs, particularly in something like the road, the imagery of the road, the asphalt, the signage, the big blocks of trucks, it's picking up almost same kind of tropes, but still in very much embedded in his own realistic vision.
"So it is interesting, you do see this push and pull throughout his practice between this weird unsettling, uncanny, surreal imagery, also always kind of formulated on this very, very strict and very well-considered, almost abstract understanding of composition."
And despite the best efforts of critics and art historians, Smart resisted adhering to straightforward narratives when it came to its subjects and compositions.
He was famously disingenuous, for example, when it came to "explaining" Cahill Expressway. A one-armed man alone in front of a tunnel - what could it mean?
"A strong black vertical rectangle with a bald head is a lovely shape," he once said about the one-armed man. In other words, he was just in there for scale, with a shiny pate as a highlight.
But later works, such as Truck and Trailer Approaching City, from 1973, while immediately recognisable in a figurative sense, are really a symphony of lines and rectangles fairly flying off the canvas.
And in his various portraits - of Clive James, David Malouf and Germaine Greer, for example - he takes the portrait genre to the enth degree. Greer sits on a chair at the side of the frame, with a graffitied wall behind her, handbag on lap, looking, as though she's seconds away from rising up and towards the artist. James, meanwhile, is a minute figure, a torso above a vivid yellow fence that takes up three quarters of the frame.
"He didn't want people just to tell straightforward narratives as if every work had a story, like what was the work about, and I think something that is really interesting is that he sets up spaces, like theatrical spaces or stage sets with props, and he invites the viewer to bring their own stories to it," Hart says.
"But at the same time, he is choosing very specific things."
Although he would eventually return to Europe and settle in Italy, where he lived with his partner Ermes De Zan until his death in 2013, Smart disliked being referred to - as he usually is - as an expatriate Australian artist. He returned here regularly, and it was in Australian galleries that he mainly showed his works.
"He was very keen to maintain that deep connection with Australia and his art, but it's interesting that he didn't like to be called an expat," Hart says.
"It's almost like a bit ahead of his time in one way of seeing that you could be part of different places."
He understood that the art world could contract and expand, depending on where your heart lay. Today, in this age of globalisation and constant connectedness, this concept is part of being a cosmopolitan, global citizen. In the 1960s, it was radical.
Ahead of his time indeed; his surreal and quiet urban streetscapes must have seemed utterly alien, cutting-edge and from a different time and place. They were missives from the future.
"What he was doing was such a departure from the en plein air landscape tradition that dominated Australian art history for so long," Edwards says.
"Smart was part of a group of artists at that time, and of course, he's not the only artist that's painting modern subjects. But there's a real grit and a real honesty, I think, that people identify with, that makes the everyday and makes the mundane beautiful."
Making the mundane beautiful. If ever there was a preoccupation of this day and age, it has been making the best of a world-wide conundrum of panic, fear, and retreat into the comfortable and familiar, searching for beauty and grace in smaller spaces as we've all been confined and our worlds have shrunk.
Smart might well have loved the fact that his centenary retrospective was taking place in a time when his works have never resonated more strongly.
"There is a sense that you can step back now with the passage of time and really say, Well, what has Jeffrey Smart contributed to Australian art?" Hart says.
"I think that there are a number of things that he brings that are very much part of our times. His interest in theatricality is one thing, but he was also interested in surveillance, for example, new forms of communication in the Cold War, he was interested in the way that radar dishes and satellites were operating and in terms of that dimension, he weaves these little clues into his work. And from a contemporary perspective that's now really part of our world.
"Jeffrey would have loved that, because he loved that idea of playing with notions of time, he was really interested in the interweaving of the past, present, and future.
"And so the future has caught up with Jeffrey now, and some of the vision that he brought to it."
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