National Gallery of Australia buys Near Knossos by Australian artist Jeffrey Smart for $1.25 million

Curators Rebecca Edwards and Deborah Hart with the recently acquired Near Knossos (1973) by Jeffrey Smart. Picture: Karleen Minney
Curators Rebecca Edwards and Deborah Hart with the recently acquired Near Knossos (1973) by Jeffrey Smart. Picture: Karleen Minney

If only Jeffrey Smart could have come back to life this week, even for a day.

The sight of crowds of art-lovers taking in a major exhibition of his works at the National Gallery of Australia would be more than enough to sustain him in the afterlife.

But one work in particular, out of the 130 showstoppers on display, now has a certain lure to it.

Near Knossos, painted in 1973, has just been bought by the gallery - a triumphant acquisition in a market that rarely sees works by one of Australia's most popular artists on offer.

And it's a stunner, even in an exhibition bursting with arresting, colour-drenched works that defy easy description.

The gallery has paid $1.25 million for the painting of a red-and-turquoise bus in front of a beige building with purple shutters - a classic, vaguely surreal Smart composition that demands a second look, despite its distinct lack of narrative.

Co-curator Rebecca Edwards said the work had previously been part of the collection of University of South Australia, where the collections policy had lately shifted to more contemporary works.

"What's been interesting is that the best Smart works are closely held in private collections, and they were all acquired not long after he actually produced them," she said.

"People love his works, they acquire them and they hang onto them for a very, very long time.

"You don't often see works of this calibre around on the secondary market, so we've really jumped at that opportunity.

"It's a great way to mark the exhibition and mark the centenary of his birth, but also mark our 40th anniversary."

Jeffrey Smart's Near Knossos.

Jeffrey Smart's Near Knossos.

She said the work was a solid example of the middle part of Smart's career, and the final price had been a relative bargain.

"His best works, particularly from this later period, go for upwards to $2 million," she said.

Although Smart, who died in 2013 at the age of 91, is considered one of Australia's great artists, he struggled in his early career to make a living from his art.

Both then and now, his works didn't fit any traditional mould; he was influenced by hard-edged abstraction, surrealism, bold colours and unusual symmetry.

Many of his most famous works depict empty streetscapes and stark, urban scenes - strange, anxious, and almost dystopian, while drenched with colour.

Ms Edwards said Near Knossos was painted during a key point in Smart's career when he had recently settled in Italy, where he would live for the rest of his life.

"He bought Posticcia Nuova in Tuscany, an old villa, and he renovated it and was finally able to paint full time," she said.

"He renovated a studio in an old outhouse and spent long days in the studio - it was a really content period for him, with a great confidence in his painting.

"When you look at a lot of the works from this time, the scale grows, the compositions become more complex, the palette's really inventive, often quite bright and pop-y."

  • Jeffrey Smart is showing at the National Gallery of Australia until May 15. Visit nga.gov.au for details.
This story Classic colour: National Gallery snaps up Smart bargain first appeared on The Canberra Times.