I looked, and behold, a door was opened in Heaven 1952-53 signed and dated 'G. Cossington Smith. 53' lower left oil on composition board 86.4 x 59.2cm (34 x 23 5/16in).
PROVENANCE The collection of the artist Daniel Thomas, Adelaide Deutscher Fine Art, Melbourne The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1995
EXHIBITED Society of Artists' Annual Exhibition, Education Department, Sydney, 28 August 14 September 1953, cat. no. 8 Grace Cossington Smith, touring exhibition, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 15 June 15 July 1973; Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 6 September - 4 October 1973; Western Australian Art Gallery, Perth, 6 December 1973 - 2 January 1974; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 11 January - 10 February 1974, cat. no. 64 Grace Cossington Smith, A Retrospective Exhibition, touring exhibition, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 4 March 13 June 2005; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 29 July 9 October 2005; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 29 October 2005 15 January 2006; Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 11 February 30 April 2005
LITERATURE Daniel Thomas, Grace Cossington Smith, exh. cat., Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 1973, p. 53 (illus.), 67 Rosemary Crumlin, Images of Religion in Australian Art, Bay Books, Kensington, N.S.W., 1988, pp. 26-27 (illus.) Bruce James, Grace Cossington Smith, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1990, pp. 134-137, pl. 96 (illus.) Drusilla Modjeska, Stravinsky's lunch, Pan MacMillan, Sydney, 1999, pp. 320-322, p. 321 (illus.) Deborah Hart, et al, Grace Cossington Smith, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2005, pp. 73-74, 75 (illus.), 157, 180
The Blake Prize for Religious Art, launched in 1951, opened a challenge as well as an opportunity to artists like Grace Cossington Smith and the younger Sidney Nolan, who were, in different ways, working within a modernist idiom.
Though a devout Anglican, there is no record of Cossington Smith's response to the announcement of this new award. Recently returned from England where, with her sisters Diddy and Madge, she had been since 1949 visiting friends and relatives, she was in no position to submit an entry in its inaugural year of 1951. Nor did she enter in its second. While in England she had exhibited two oils - Morning landscape at London's Redfern Gallery Summer Exhibition in 1949, and Still life with Australian banksia at the Royal Academy in the winter of 1950 - but for the most part she worked in coloured and lead pencil in sketchbooks now held at the National Gallery of Australia. There, in the rich record of her travels, are sketches of churches in the English towns and villages she visited, drawn with a reverential eye.
In considering I looked, and behold, a door was opened in heaven, there is particular relevance in the sketches she made in Italy, where she spent the summer of 1949 with her friend Nell Campbell. Based near Florence at Poggio San Felice - her window opened onto hills and church towers she saw in situ for the first and only time the fresco paintings of the quattrocento. She knew them from reproductions, of course, and had long admired Fra Angelico; there is a coloured pencil sketch dating from 1947, before she left for England, called Church window after Fra Angelico: Resurrection. To see the frescos, to stand in their presence as a Christian was, for her, a profound experience. 'In the sacred fresco cycles of Florence,' Bruce James writes, Cossington Smith found 'an affirmation of art's religious purpose, rational impulse and expressive licence.'1
It was this affirmation that was given expression in the two large oils she entered for the third Blake Prize in 1953. Then one of them, which was a lawyer, Asked Him a Question, a text from St Mathew, was accepted and exhibited. It is now held by the National Gallery of Australia. I looked, and behold, a door was opened in heaven, which took its text from Revelations, was not accepted for exhibition. Described in 1990 as a painting that 'defies art-historical stereotypes' 2, it was perhaps considered too radical a work in 1953. It would be twenty years before it had a public showing, in the Art Gallery of New South Wales's retrospective of her work in 1973.
Daniel Thomas, who curated the retrospective, had joined the staff of the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1958, just as Bernard Smith was finishing his book Australian Painting 1788-1960. It was through him that Thomas first encountered the work of Grace Cossington Smith and saw The sock knitter, 1915, purchased by the Gallery in 1960. In 1967 he began work on the retrospective, visiting the artist at Cossington, the family home at Turramurra, a northern Sydney suburb, where she had lived since 1914. In her studio Thomas found such major works as Trees 1926, Soldiers marching c.1917, The lacquer room 1935-6, and The bridge-in-curve 1930, as well as some of the great interiors of the 1950s, including Interior with wardrobe mirror 1955 and Way to the studio 1957.
Also in the Turramurra studio was I looked, and behold, a door was opened in heaven. Thomas subsequently bought it for his own collection, and in 1995 it passed to the Grundy collection. It is a quirky image offering, it might be said, a modern take on the great wall-paintings of Florence. A circle of sitting saints, some with large bottoms overflowing their stools, surrounds a figure of God seated on a golden throne in a yellow-green aureole. The saints are finely drawn with arms and hands in a variety of attitudes. In a move typical of Cossington Smith, who valued the accuracy of what she saw, she used as a model her own bottom and the soles of her feet as they appeared in a mirror at Cossington. A bearded figure looks up through a doorway in reverence. Bruce James suggests that this figure might be a version of Cossington Smith herself 3. The door through which he looks is widely taken to be a reference to Cossington. 'Note the door,' she said to Daniel Thomas. 4
From her student days Cossington Smith had sketched doors and windows, the threshold between light and shade, inside and out. The trope of the door opening reaches its fullest expression in the great interiors she painted in the years after her return from Europe in 1951. Where the early sketches had been, as she so often said, attempts to paint what she saw - her stated aim from the beginning - the late interiors are as much revelations of things unseen, the numinous in the ordinary, the miraculous in the everyday. While Blake Prize judges of today would have no difficulty in understanding these works as religious art, that was not so in 1953. In I looked, and behold, a door was opened in heaven, influenced by Fra Angelico and the frescos she had seen in Italy, she gives shape to a divine realm glimpsed from a doorway at Cossington. It was in these terms that Daniel Thomas understood its significance as a religious painting. To Bruce James and also to Deborah Hart, who included it in the exhibition Grace Cossington Smith at the National Gallery of Australia in 2005, it represents a key moment in her work, arching back to her earliest sketches and looking forward to the luminosity of the late interiors.
'The work is significant,' Hart writes, 'in making the invisible visible, revealing a subtext in much of Cossington Smith's art: the desire to integrate the spiritual into the everyday. It was as though, at sixty years of age, the artist's own revelation appeared through the door of her home at Cossington, where she had lived since 1914.'5
Talking to Daniel Thomas in the early 1970s, Cossington Smith spoke of the feeling of returning at the end of the day to 'the smile of home', a phrase from her father which she used as the title of a 1925 sketch of a sister standing in the lighted doorway of Cossington 6, capturing the mood of welcome. She would, as Hart suggests, 'come full circle as the door opened onto her luminous late interiors'.
1 Bruce James, Grace Cossington Smith, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1990, p. 132 2 Bruce James, op. cit., p. 137 3 ibid. 4 Daniel Thomas, Grace Cossington Smith: A Life from Drawings in the Collection of the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1993, p. 33 5 Deborah Hart, Grace Cossington Smith, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2005, p. 74 6 Daniel Thomas, op. cit., 1993, p. 11