The known world

One of the delights of living in rural New South Wales, between the Illawarra and the Southern Highlands, is the possibility of an after-breakfast jaunt to Canberra, divided road nearly all the way, only four traffic lights and park outside the door when you arrive.

There is the oblique sunlight lying across the land, sometimes a rising moon on the way home, and the seasonal changes to note en route; fog on the escarpment, vineyards and elm-lined driveways on the highlands and drought on the plains. 

Grace Cossington Smith  (1892–1984) knew this land, so it is appropriate that we follow her route.

Neither her pencil sketches of Church Cottage, Bowral (1911), nor a painting of the bare Monaro—Sunday morning: cows at Lanyon (c. 1916)—defers to the picturesque, a quality you might expect of a privileged young  woman dedicated to a career as a painter in the second decade of the 20th century.

Whereas her mostly male contemporaries would have put pretty tea parties on her verandahs and mythologised the Monaro, Cossington Smith is intrigued by the way light comes in through open doorways and slices through blocks of shadow. Her paddocks are dry, as they usually are, a single big tree plonked in the centre of the canvas, its leafless and broken limbs providing little shade to three blocky, two-dimensional cows.

These works provide signposts rather than hints to the way her long and prolific career would develop. The brilliant colour would arrive on her palette soon, but her preoccupation with light, of the relationship between the private domain and nature, and of nature itself, are all here. Though some of her paintings contain people, even rushing, pushing crowds of them in her early urban subjects, the empty house and the farm corner indicate her chosen direction. These places are not abandoned, however; there is already the sense that someone has just left or is about to arrive in the room or come through a gate and into the paddock. Activity is not far away.

Grace Cossington Smith: a retrospective exhibition, currently at the National Gallery of Australia and touring until April 2006, is a thoroughly satisfying show on many levels. It contains about 120 paintings (though some will not tour) so there is that good feeling that the effort of going is well worthwhile. The sub title retrospective is well chosen because the works range from 1908–1971, age 16 to age 79, and so provide a truly revealing insight into the development of the artist. They encapsulate many of the significant movements in 20th-century painting, though under her brush they are not so much ‘movements’ in the plural, like dodgem cars to be jumped on and off again, but more like a singular, individual journey along a philosophical pathway. There are lots of drawings and sketchbooks full of written notes as well as visual documentation; most importantly, the paintings are all either very interesting or brilliantly lovely or both.

It would be easy to see behind these paintings an independent urban sophisticate, but they in fact represent the life’s work of a woman who spent all her adulthood in the same house—Cossington, in the comfortable Sydney suburb of Turramurra—who never married, who looked after her parents until they died and who was devoted to her family.

Loved and encouraged by her parents, she attended art school in Sydney, was taken with one of her sisters on an extended trip to England, exhibited regularly and was provided with that object of the creative woman’s desire, a room of her own in the form of a garden studio. Life in a garret on a diet of paint scrapings was neither necessary nor desirable, and she had no need to paint for a living.

Quite different were the circumstances of two of her contemporaries, Jean Bellette and Stella Bowen, also subjects of recent retrospectives: all three studied art in the first decades of the century and went to Europe to widen their horizons.

Bellette returned to Sydney where, with her husband, art critic Paul Haefliger, she found herself in the centre of the city’s art world. An out-of-town base in the remote old mining area at Hill End and her final decades as an expatriate artist in Majorca ensured that fresh challenges and stimuli were constant.

Bowen was born a year after Cossington Smith but died in her fifties. She did not return to Australia until the end of her life. Her career was pushed and pulled by intellectual and emotional highs, love, betrayal and financial hardship which made painting a dire necessity, not a middle-class indulgence. Drusilla Modjeska’s book Stravinsky’s Lunch is an absorbing study of her and Cossington Smith’s paths.

Bellette and Cossington Smith, however, do have in common the fact that their philosophies, formed early and followed consistently, were inspired by Cezanne: the former’s concerned cubism, classicism and figures in the landscape, and the latter’s colour and light as they express form.

Grace’s middle-class Anglo-Australian life on the upper North Shore revolved around the church, social visits, charity work like selling flowers and knitting socks for the troops, gardening, doing the house, staying with friends in the country, visiting the city by train and ferry accompanied by her sketchbook and pencils. Nearly all her landscape subjects could be reached by train from Turramurra; others, particularly as she got older, were very close indeed, such as Things on an iron tray on the floor (c.1928).

This artist lived through two wars and a terrible depression. There is no social realism here, though, no cry to the heart. The painter’s eye is interested in the massing of forms and the colour of shadows as she watches troops marching, attends a memorial service, imagines a dawn landing.

‘Form achieved with colour is what I always wanted to express,’ the artist stated in her later life with a nod to Cezanne. The exhibition shows clearly how, after an early flirtation with tonal painting, this became the unifying factor in her paintings, whatever the subject. But as a committed post-impressionist her colour had to be handled in a particular way, to avoid what she called ‘a dead look’. She used her brush to lay it in feathery strokes, billowing arches or square slabs.

The bridge in-curve (c. 1930) shows the incomplete Harbour Bridge from below, towering rhythmically over rooftops, the brilliant blue of the sky applied in a mesh of pastel-like strokes echoing the arches as well as the struts.

Her colour is frequently used more than descriptively but not to shock; for example viridian green, mauve, turquoise and orange which are more like lollies that nature. In Bulli Pier, South Coast (1931) it is hard to see where the sea meets the sky because both are represented as waves of rolling unfamiliar colour and complex brush work.

Cossington Smith’s paintings were developed from her detailed sketches, not painted en plein air, and sometimes, as in the examples above, the coloured lines were simply translated into paint as it suited her, using it as a linear drawing medium. Thus they are actually enriched and enlivened by being one step removed from the subject.

The final room in the Canberra exhibition is filled with the later paintings of her room and studio, where ‘the sunlight did not come in in a definite way but was full of light’. Although large and filled with brilliant colour, particularly yellow, reflected from the garden and captured in shimmering, faceted strokes, they hark immediately back to that early Bowral sketch.

Her rooms are empty, and in such repetition they are eerie. The French doors and wardrobes are open, clothes and covers are left around as if someone has left, over and over again, in a hurry but not for good. 
These interiors are more Matisse, decorative and unoccupied, than Bonnard. He frequently placed a nude female figure across his rumpled bed, whereas Cossington Smith allows only one person in, her friend Enid, draped on a chaise, elegant and decorous in a spreading red dress and a big dark hat.

Grace Cossington Smith captures the genius loci of her close environment as significantly as any painter of the grand sublime vista. Her small world is known and loved. The very ordinariness and order of this life was, for her, its strength. Its predictability, repetitiveness and security provided her with a disciplined routine; in its stasis the familiar was also the special and in its isolation there was ‘the chance of finding [her]self’; what could be a glimpse taken in passing or totally missed by one artist provided her with life long inspiration.

Form, colour and the time to express them were abundant.

Anna Griffiths is an art consultant.

Grace Cossington Smith: a retrospective exhibition. Curator: Deborah Hart, National Gallery of Australia until June 13; Art Gallery of South Australia 29 July–9 October; Art Gallery of New South Wales 29 October–15 Jan 2006; Queensland Art Gallery 11 February–30 April 2006. The quotes above are taken from a recorded interview accompanying the exhibition.



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