The James Gleeson oral history collection

James Gleeson interviews Australia's major artists

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Eric Smith

29 May 1979

James Gleeson: Eric, we only have a few of your works in the collection at the moment, and one of those is a mystery one which we'll return to presently.

Eric Smith: Sure.

James Gleeson: But the one that in my opinion is the undoubted masterpiece is the portrait of John Olsen. Could you tell me, you know, something about the circumstances under which that was painted?

Eric Smith: Well, I think the success of the painting in the sense, I think, that it has the something of the great enthusiasm and excitement of new adventures at the time we held the show Direction 1, when John, Billy Rose, Passmore and Bob Klippel and I put on that show at Macquarie Galleries.

James Gleeson: Yes.

Eric Smith: John had just started his You Beaut paintings, and I liked the idea, or was developing the idea, of painting figures emerging out of the landscape. It seemed, you know, just absolutely right to paint John Olsen emerging out of the you beaut country. It gave me an opportunity to fling paint around and also paint a portrait of John that showed, I think, a lot of the enthusiasm and the sense of our relationship at the time, which was a particularly joyous one and a particularly exciting one.

James Gleeson: I think that comes out in the painting. It's a most vital and joyous painting.

Eric Smith: Yes, I think that I would still like the painting if I saw it again.

James Gleeson: Yes. Sorry I haven't got a photograph of it but it was in oil, wasn't it?

Eric Smith: Yes.

James Gleeson: They're correct about that.

Eric Smith: Yes.

James Gleeson: And the date is right, 1962?

Eric Smith: Yes, well that would be–yes sure.

James Gleeson: Was it part of a series? You know, portraiture has been a major part of your concern as an artist for a long time, hasn't it?

Eric Smith: Yes.

James Gleeson: But you didn't start off as a portrait painter?

Eric Smith: No.

James Gleeson: I remember initially you were religious subjects to begin with.

Eric Smith: Well, to go back further, Jimmy, the first picture I ever painted was a self-portrait.

James Gleeson: Was it?

Eric Smith: I was doing commercial art at Brunswick Tech and I saw a chap painting there one day when I went into my room. The art master at Brunswick Tech had suggested I take up painting, but I wanted to be a poster artist and a caricaturist and all that sort of jazz.

James Gleeson: Were you born in Melbourne?

Eric Smith: Yes. Oh yes, an old Melbourne man, born in Brunswick.

James Gleeson: I see.

Eric Smith: Lenny French was a close associate. So I bought a box of paints and couldn't wait to get back to school. That weekend I set up an easel and a paint box and a mirror and painted my first picture which was a self-portrait.

James Gleeson: I see.

Eric Smith: I don't think it exists any more. Then I went on and painted a number of portraits at Brunswick Tech. The war intervened. But before the war I joined the Contemporary Arts Society. I'd seen works of Cézanne and Van Gogh. Although I didn't like them at the beginning, I gradually came to like them. So that, you know, academic painting had no more meaning for me.


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