Nationwide Gallery of Australia: Jeffrey Good exhibition


When an artist is alleged to be “conventional and progressive on the identical time”, he can solely be an incredible individualist. When this description comes from the director of the Nationwide Gallery of Australia, in his foreword to {the catalogue} of a significant Jeffrey Good exhibition, it suggests a great deal of uncertainty about the place the artist’s fame stands eight years after his demise.

The Jeffrey Good I knew would admire the irony that the NGA is having bother assigning him a pigeonhole. Though chargeable for among the most iconic pictures in Australian artwork, Good (1920-2013) all the time felt he was swimming in opposition to the tide. He was a modernist in Adelaide at a time when typical style held agency to Hans Heysen and the “gumtree faculty”. In Sydney, the place Good discovered his path as a figurative painter, abstraction turned the brand new orthodoxy. On this milieu, his dedication to a sensible fashion of portray made him appear old school and conservative, resulting in his omission from not less than one necessary survey of Australian artwork. He grew bored with listening to buddies encouraging him to “loosen up”.

Jeffrey Good at Trumper Park, Sydney, in 2008.Credit score:Quentin Jones

In his later years in Italy, when he was promoting work for a whole lot of hundreds of {dollars}, Good nonetheless suffered the ache of those early struggles. With every new exhibition, he felt a twinge of insecurity, imagining somebody strolling into the gallery and declaring: “Why, these work are garbage! This man’s a whole fraud! ” . Or so he as soon as advised me in a kind of humorous asides that reveal a elementary fact.

Within the catalogue for the NGA’s Jeffrey Good exhibition, solely former AGNSW curator Barry Pearce, who knew the artist properly, touches on this perennial insecurity. To these acquainted with Good socially, he might appear self-confident to the purpose of vanity. Margaret Olley’s nickname of “Lord Good” neatly captured that facet of his persona.

It has grow to be normal apply to narrate the artist’s work to his homosexuality, which needed to stay a public secret for a few years. However he was no homosexual liberationist. By the point I met Good, the times of darkest prejudice had been largely gone, and he had been residing in Tuscany together with his companion, Ermes De Zan, for greater than a decade. He had a fund of earthy, hilarious tales concerning the underground world that homosexual males as soon as inhabited in Sydney. He talked concerning the “poofter events” that might escape when all of the straights had gone dwelling. He joked that the rough-looking employee in The Billy Boy (1943) was Invoice Dobell’s sexual fantasy.

His greatest story got here from the times when he was artwork critic for The Every day Telegraph. Throughout a giant social gathering at Sir Frank Packer’s place, he was approached by the nice man himself. “You’re the artwork critic, aren’t you?” stated Sir Frank. “Sure, Mr Packer,” stated Jeffrey.

“Effectively, let’s go take a piss,” stated Sir Frank – a standard male conversational gambit in these days. Not understanding the place to look, the thought that saved working by Good’s head was: “Oh my God, I hope he by no means finds out about my orientations.”

Having spent a lot of his life hiding behind a rigorously constructed public profile, Good had no need to go marching within the streets to defend his preferences. He was equally disinterested in the concept artists had a sacred proper to authorities grants and hand-outs, having come by a time when artists labored at all types of jobs and painted madly for exhibitions to eke out a residing. As “Phidias”, he introduced the ABC kids’s artwork program, The Argonauts, first on radio then TV. To pay for a passage to Europe, he labored scrubbing decks and cleansing bogs. No matter success he loved in later life had been hard-earned.


Good was serious about folks as people, not as representatives of ideologically decided identities. He’d be appalled if he might see the advances of political correctness into our modern cultural establishments. His work are stuffed with sly jokes, however by no means political statements. He firmly endorsed Sam Goldwyn’s well-known quip: “if you wish to ship a message, name Western Union.”

Though Good was ostensibly a realist, a painter of contemporary life, his footage all the time urged greater than meets the attention. The title of his autobiography, Not Fairly Straight (1996) will not be merely a play on sexual identification, however an outline of his complete profession as an artist. A typical Good portray could look like an abnormal slice of life, however the longer one appears to be like, the extra enigmatic it turns into.

Take, as an illustration, his most well-known portray, The Cahill Expressway (1962). On the floor, it exhibits a portly, bald-headed man with one arm, standing by the aspect of a street that curves right into a tunnel. One degree above, there’s a monument from which a determine stretches out an arm to the heavens. With its trendy workplace blocks and road lighting, we all know we’re in a giant metropolis, nevertheless it’s as if a neutron bomb has been detonated. Apart from the fats man doing an Alfred Hitchcock cameo, the streets are fully abandoned.

Most Sydney folks can be aware of the precise Cahill Expressway, nevertheless it bears solely the vaguest resemblance to this scene. Bertram Mackennal’s Shakespeare Memorial (1926) reverse the State Library, which appears to have supplied the mannequin for the statue, can also be very totally different to the painted model. The portray will not be a quasi-photographic rendering of a streetscape however a visible fiction constructed by the artist. He’s not telling us who the fats man is or providing any rationalization for the pervasive vacancy. The scene is as stark and melancholy as one in all Giorgio de Chirico’s lonely piazzas or a naked city vista by Edward Hopper. It additionally conjures up ideas of the EUR, the suburb on the outskirts of Rome that dates from the period of Mussolini.

Cahill Expressway, like so lots of Good’s work, asks questions for which there aren’t any simple solutions. On this case, his tactic was so profitable that a complete assortment of brief tales was dedicated to the picture, in an anthology edited by Helen Daniel in 1989.

The identical ambiguities seem in a single work after one other, much less as a method than an intuitive choice that goes to the very coronary heart of the artist’s temperament. Within the doubts and insecurities that stayed with Good for his complete life, and his infamous unwillingness to debate the content material of his work, we study so much about him.

Jeffrey Smart, Portrait of David Malouf, 1980.

Jeffrey Good, Portrait of David Malouf, 1980.Credit score:Artwork Gallery of Western Australia

I used to be pissed off by Good’s reluctance to analyse something however the formal, compositional construction of a portray once I visited him in his Tuscan dwelling, at Pieve a Presciano, in 1988, to gather materials for a monograph. I used to be writing the e-book at Good’s invitation, and hardly knew him at this stage. He was charming, clever, humorous and formidably well-read. He and Ermes did a pleasant line in combative banter, sparring with one another always in a manner that solely confirmed the firmness of their relationship.

Nonetheless in my 20s, with a head stuffed with artwork idea and half-baked concepts, I ran up in opposition to the wall of Good’s practiced defence mechanisms. He would discuss knowledgeably concerning the golden part and different compositional units however by no means enterprise a considered what a picture would possibly truly imply. That, I quickly realised, was my job, and he was not going to position any constraints on my flights of fancy. Since that go to, I’ve harboured a deep mistrust of artists who’re keen to clarify each little nuance of their work.

Good had a variety of favorite quotations that had been wheeled out because the event demanded. One in all them was Cezanne’s line that artwork is a priesthood solely the pure of coronary heart can enter. A extra correct model of this citation reads “is artwork actually the priesthood that calls for the pure in coronary heart who belong to it wholly?” Cezanne had been interrogative, however in his thoughts Good made the concept way more decisive. Artwork was a priesthood, no bones about it.

Though those that knew Good might by no means think about him in priestly vestments (essentially the most eye-opening {photograph} within the catalogue exhibits him as a teenage choirboy!), his angle to artwork was nearly spiritual. He took such eager pleasure within the nice works of antiquity and the Renaissance that he’d go to them time and again. He had a love of music, notably Wagner, and had attended quite a few Ring Cycles. He was properly versed in literature and historical past and will quote poetry in a manner that appears nearly inconceivable in an age of smartphones and social media.

This deep respect for historical past and tradition made Good the humblest of artists when he laboured for weeks and months on a portray. Acutely aware all the time of the giants that had gone earlier than, he felt the smallness of his personal makes an attempt so as to add one other brick to the towering edifice of civilisation.

Jeffrey Smart, Luxury Cruise, 1972-73.

Jeffrey Good, Luxurious Cruise, 1972-73.Credit score:Personal Assortment

On that first go to to Tuscany, we set a sample that might be repeated in years to come back. The discuss would stream freely on any variety of subjects, however any understanding of Good’s motivations as an artist got here by a collection of displays. We drove to Naples to see the Archaeological Museum, to Paestum and Pompeii. One other time, we went on a Piero della Francesca crawl, visiting The Resurrection in Sansepolcro, The Legend of the True Cross in Arezzo, the Madonna del Parto in a lonely chapel in Monterchi (the portray is now in a museum), and the Flagellation in Urbino. We visited Orvieto to see The Final Judgement by Signorelli, and Ravenna to see the well-known mosaics. We wandered by Rome with Justin O’Brien and spent a day driving across the metropolis searching for out architectural treasures and curiosities. We went on a memorable Giovanni Bellini crawl, searching for out masterpieces in numerous cities.

This was a superb, first-hand artwork schooling and it makes it exhausting for me to assume objectively about Jeffrey Good as I owe him an incredible debt as a buddy and mentor. All of the issues we checked out as we rambled round Italy had been necessary to his personal improvement as an artist. He needed me to know this, however mainly he needed to me to expertise the identical thrill in entrance of this work he had felt in these early years spent exploring his adopted nation.

Jeffrey Smart, Self Portrait, 1993.

Jeffrey Good, Self Portrait, 1993.Credit score:College of Queensland

And so, once I discover the NGA fighting the concept of an artist who’s each “conventional and progressive”, I consider a painter who was immersed within the artwork of the previous however absolutely conscious of the necessity to reply to the occasions wherein he lived. If it was the load of the previous that generated lots of Good’s insecurities, he turned this anxiousness into a creative advantage. He shared the identical capability for “doubt” that we see in trendy masters corresponding to Cezanne and Matisse. In embracing doubt, Good additionally admitted the opportunity of failure, which led to these lengthy, drawn-out classes within the studio, quite a few research, limitless revisions and diminishing productiveness.

Good used to speak about how Edward Hopper would solely produce one or two work a 12 months on the finish of his life. Balthus, whom he knew personally, would possibly produce just one. Greater than most artists, Good had a eager sense of his personal place in historical past, or not less than the place he want to be positioned. Consequently, he gave a substantial amount of thought to the image that might be his closing work, Labyrinth (2011). This picture of a stony maze wherein we see a single determine is an acute illustration of a life and a profession wherein a path was misplaced and located on many events. It additionally suggests the puzzles he set for his viewers by privileging type over content material. Once we study that the person within the maze is a portrait of H G Wells, writer of The Time Machine, it’s tempting to consider artwork itself as a tool wherein we journey backwards and forwards by time, coming into essentially the most intimate contact with the previous and looking out ahead to new cultural horizons.

Jeffrey Smart, Labyrinth, 2011, Tuscany, Italy

Jeffrey Good, Labyrinth, 2011, Tuscany, ItalyCredit score:Nationwide Gallery of Australia


For Good, it was crucial to color the world wherein he lived whereas by no means relinquishing his respect for his predecessors. Though hesitant to disclose his personal ideas, he constantly denied that he was portray visions of city despair and alienation. If viewers couldn’t see magnificence within the concrete and asphalt he liked to color, that was not his concern.

The extra I take into consideration Good’s work, the extra I start to see it as really “metaphysical” – crammed with abnormal issues that tackle a mysterious presence when remoted inside a composition. De Chirico did this with objects as banal as gloves, biscuits and bunches of bananas. Good most popular carparks, site visitors indicators, lorries and concrete bollards. His work will not be laden with messages and secrets and techniques; it merely encourages us to be constructive in our engagement with the world, to reject cliches and the dreariness of all issues “picturesque”. Guests to the NGA survey will study that trying on the world by the eyes of Jeffrey Good means discovering wonders in essentially the most unlikely locations.

Jeffrey Good is on the Nationwide Gallery of Australia from December 11- Could 15 2022.

The Booklist is a weekly e-newsletter for e-book lovers from books editor Jason Steger. Get it delivered each Friday.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here