Obsessed with perfection in his highly geometric paintings, Australian artist Jeffrey Smart was known for his still, urban landscapes.
The Steps is a representative painting of Smart’s, with its emphasis on the geometry of the climbing staircase, the overcast sky and the lonely, contemplative woman dressed in yellow at the top. Notice how bright the stairs are, in spite of the gloomy clouds. It gives us some hope and warmth, in what could have been a far more desolate scene. The most intriguing element of the painting is the blue garment at the bottom of the stairs. It almost begs us to make up a story to justify its presence there.
With the vantage point at the bottom of the stairs, one might feel overwhelmed by the arduous climb that needs to be taken. Perhaps the reward for the climb is contemplation – like for the woman in yellow – or freedom, as suggested by the birds flying in the sky. It is a lonely journey, nonetheless.
It would be a mistake to try to read too much into the Australian’s work, as he cared far more about composition than he did about meaning. The woman on the staircase is more a scaling trick to make the staircase look even more imposing and towering; it’s not necessarily a reflection on the alienation and loneliness of people amid an urbanized environment. We’re free to make our own interpretations, of course, but just be wary of assuming that Smart wanted us to think one way or another.