STILL LIFE IN THE WINDOW, 1959

Important Australian Works of Art from the Estate of the late James O. Fairfax AC
Sydney
30 August 2017
3

GRACE COSSINGTON SMITH

(1892 – 1984)
STILL LIFE IN THE WINDOW, 1959

oil on composition board

61.5 x 47.5 cm

signed and dated lower left : G Cossington Smith 59
signed and inscribed with title on artist’s label verso: Still Life in the Window / Grace Cossington Smith
bears inscription verso: I2

Estimate: 
$70,000 – 90,000
Provenance

Macquarie Galleries, Sydney
The Estate of the late James O. Fairfax AC, New South Wales

Exhibited

Contemporary Group, Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, 29 July – 10 August 1959, cat. 20

Catalogue text

Grace Cossington Smith knew it was an advantage not to have to work. Unhurried by economic need, unflustered by an applauding public, she could wait until the moment was right: ’I only paint when I want to’; ’When I do paint it is something I want to do’.1 Still life was then a rather debased genre, which needy and untalented painters were inclined to seize upon for lacklustre productions and renowned artists too often used as an opportunity for parading their skill. For Grace Cossington Smith, however, still life and interiors (a form of still life) involved the stiff challenge of shaping the familiar world for an elemental experience.

Morning light and winter appear to be the underlying, conventional notes of Still Life in the Window, 1959. A cold light plays on yellow-green winter fruits, quinces, pears and apples. Morning (after the daily chores were done) was Grace’s best time of day for concentrated spells of painting. Her practice was to paint ’two or three hours in the morning and then perhaps an hour or two in the afternoon’.2 Consequently, her paintings more often represent the pure light of morning than the brazen afternoon. But since the winter morning effects, as she would say, happened ’unconsciously’, they fit into the category of the incidental. Time of day and season were not conscious factors in her art whereas she focused fiercely on transformative effects of colour-in-light and volumetric form.3

Throughout Still Life in the Window there is both a modeller at work and a colourist. Cossington Smith, who had experimented with sculpture and could readily turn her hand to carpentry, had a sculptor’s sense of three-dimensional form. With the exception of the window in the upper right, the image is formed of layers of cloth which are so complexly and restlessly draped, folded, tugged, pouched and pushed as to completely lose the forms of wall and table. Whirlpools of cloth ridge around the fruit and push back against the drapery’s impetuous fall from above. By contrast to the decisively-modelled topography, the fruit is not modelled at all. This is where the modeller gave way to the colourist, who excluded cast shadows as ‘superficial’.4 Instead, here, she has encompassed each piece of fruit and the jugs with a discontinuous, fine dark line within which the colour has intense and vibrant life. The brilliant effect is more Sainte Chapelle than the traditional love apples with decay already at work within their flesh. The fruit radiates light. It is as light as air.

It seems that light, for Cossington Smith, embraced qualities of air and weightlessness. Here, the pieces of fruit bounce airily on hillocks of rumpled cloth. Colour aired with light pleased her, whereas Margaret Preston’s contra-practice of offsetting bright colours against black did not. Grace described Preston’s colours as ’heavy’, ’dark’ and inert (or ’hard’).5 Critics were free to see the opposite qualities in her own paintings. Perceptive James Gleeson saw a battle between light and solidity. ’Light for Grace Cossington Smith is the other side of the coin [from Vermeer’s calm and solid form]. It comes like a dissolvent, seeping into solid surfaces, and their substance disintegrates to crystalline fragments …Brilliant, beautiful, intense, yet cool, like frozen fire … It is at war with form. It frets at order like an irritant.’

’So, in her best work, she presented a double image. The world, her pictures tell us, is familiar yet mysterious, stable yet dynamic, real yet illusory, permanent yet momentary. Because these opposing concepts are found together … [her still lifes and interiors] escape the normal limitations of their genre and become significant statements about the nature of reality.’6

1. Cossington Smith, G. interviewed by de Berg, H., Sydney, 16 August 1965, National Library of Australia, Canberra.
2. ibid.
3. Thomas, D., Grace Cossington Smith, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1973, p. 6 quotes Cossington Smith’s statement that it was her aspiration to paint ’colour vibrating with light’ and ’the relation of forms to each other’.
4. Interviewed by Alan Roberts, Sydney, January—April 1970, transcripts p. 20. Hart, D., Grace Cossington Smith, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2005, p. 90. Deborah Hart kindly discussed with me Cossington Smith’s approach to painting, and lent her copy of the transcripts of Alan Roberts’ four excellent interviews.
5. For Cossington Smith’s disparaging references to these colour effects see interviews with de Berg, H., op. cit., Roberts, A., transcripts, pp. 17, 34, 36, Thomas, D., op. cit., p. 6 and Hart, D., op. cit., p. 82
6. Gleeson, J., Sun-Herald, Sydney, 2 June 1968, p. 103

DR MARY EAGLE
Former Head of Australian Art, National Gallery of Australia