September Meeting: Bernard Smith, “Creators and Catalysts: The Modernisation of Australian Indigenous Art,” and Connal Parsley “Christian Thompson and the Art of Indigeneity”

The next Aboriginal Art Reading Group meeting will be 19 September 4-5pm in room 106, John Medley Building, University of Melbourne.

In honour of the passing of Emeritus Professor Bernard William Smith we will be reading  his 2006 paper, “Creators and Catalysts: The Modernisation of Australian Indigenous Art,” as well as Connal Parsley’s “Christian Thompson and the Art of Indigeneity,” in the first issue of Discipline.

I will email members of the reading groups’ electronic mailing list copies of both essays. Alternatively, the full text of Smith’s essay can be located in on the University of Melbourne’s Discovery Search database; and Discipline is for sale at these stockists.

Please see below for a tribute to Bernard William Smith by Dr. Sheridan Palmer.

Photo: Francis Reiss

Emeritus Professor Bernard William Smith, Art and cultural historian.
3.10.1916 —2.9.211

With the death of the art historian Bernard Smith aged ninety-four a chapter closes in Australian intellectual life. A rigorous historian of Australia’s cultural development and an astute critic of art and society, he was recognised as the father of Australian art history, an iconic distinction bestowed for the value and weight of his scholarship, his immense contribution to art and his far reaching influence on generations of art and cultural historians. His importance went well beyond those disciplines, with many anthropologists, cross-cultural historians and mainstream intellectuals considering him a ‘giant’ in their respective fields. The historian Greg Dening wrote ‘There is no other Australian scholar of whom I stand in as much awe as Bernard Smith. I can honestly say that I have never been anywhere in the field of our common scholarly interest, the ‘European’ encounter with Oceanic indigenous people, where I have not seen his footsteps ahead of me’. This sentiment was echoed by Bernard’s former student and colleague and now the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory at the University of Pittsburgh, Terry Smith, who wrote,
No other writer on art in this country can match the totality of his range, depth or sheer output. Scholars of Australian art constantly find, as they begin to glow with the excitement of a discovery, or formulate a new interpretation, that Bernard Smith has been there before them. He is not only outstanding among the founders of the discipline [of art history] in Australia, he remains its most distinguished practitioner.
Moreover, as Terry Smith said, ‘everything I do is in response to his work’, and in some ways this extends to many other Australian art historians who use Smith’s work as a benchmark or a point of contention. Daniel Thomas, the distinguished art curator, considered Smith’s writing ‘engaged the readership’; was convincing and impressive; and as a public speaker he was accessible and displayed a good sense of humour. John Frow, Professor of English, when re-reading some of Smith’s work, wrote: ‘I was struck afresh by the wonderful clarity of his writing: the marshalling of a multitude of details within clear lines of argument, the lucid balance of logic and empirical evidence.’
For almost seventy years Smith worked and wrote at the coalface of contemporary socio-politics and cultural change, but it was his deep interest in Australia’s cultural identity, its ‘antipodeanism’, that pre-occupied him. He entered Sydney’s intellectual and artistic scene in late 1939 as a young painter and Marxist critic, but he jettisoned the artist’s life in favour of writing about art. The switch was due in part to his cultural crossings with a number of exiled European intellectuals and artists in 1940, whose ideas and vigorous debates excited and stimulated Smith to organise a series of public art lectures, which he claims, were the beginnings of art history in Australia. Initially self-trained — he incarcerated himself in the Mitchell Library in the evenings — he wrote a history of Australia’s cultural development, Place, Taste and Tradition (1945). What mattered to him was how Australia emerged from its colonial cradle and got to its modern position, but it was his second book European Vision and the South Pacific (1960) that international and Australian scholars unanimously agree is his masterpiece. This contextualised Australia’s historical roots and gave Smith his credentials as an impressive historian and a major authority on the art of Captain Cook’s voyages. Smith saw the art of imperial discovery as a means of understanding the past, defining origins, and as he said ‘art as information’. Because of his ‘anti-hierarchical leanings’, he was predisposed to taking differing positions and his interest in the power relations of ‘centre’ and peripheries, especially the duality of the dominant and subordinate, profoundly interested him. But it was his mapping of events from their origins to embedding them contextually and conceptually as products of culture (language, politics, scientific and empirical knowledge, myth, art and religion) and, in particular lifting art out of its narrow confines towards an historical constituency, that is possibly Smith’s most important legacy. It is why Ernst Gombrich thought so highly of him and, in particular, European Vision and the South Pacific.
Bernard Smith was born illegitimate to a young Irish immigrant woman in a small worker’s cottage in Balmain, Sydney. Fostered out and raised by a caring family — he met his father Charles Smith on a couple of occasions but corresponded regularly with his mother Rose Anne Tierney — he learnt the lessons of economic, social and emotional distance; ‘poverty is a hard master’, and ‘a state ward can’t expect much’ he said. In a letter to Vincent Buckley, he wrote ‘many illegitimate children who do not succumb to self-pity experience a kind of distancing from society. One sees oneself almost as a kind of witness figure’. Smith’s autobiography of his childhood, The Boy Adeodatus: A story of a lucky young bastard. (1984) won both the Victorian Premier’s Award and the National Book Council Prize. Trained as a primary school teacher, Smith was seconded to the New South Wales Art Gallery as an education officer in 1944, where he organised large touring exhibitions to regional NSW, often borrowing contemporary art works from artists because the Gallery had so few in their collection. Bernard also suggested ‘contemporary’ acquisitions to the Gallery Trustees and acted as that institution’s temporary director while awaiting the incoming director Hal Missingham in 1945.
In 1941 he married Kate Challis, referring to her as his ‘civilising influence’; she also acted as his research assistant, translator and gate-keeper. In 1948 Bernard won a British Council scholarship to study at the Courtauld and Warburg Institutes at the University of London, a period that consolidated his education and confirmed his intellectual focus. Attending lectures by some of the most brilliant British and European minds, it was Charles Mitchell, Ernst Gombrich and Rudi Wittkower who became key figures in his scholarly development.
On his return to Australia in 1951, the climate of the cold war and his past activity as a communist affected his career prospects, but with the assistance of Mary Alice Evatt, the first woman Trustee of the National Art Gallery of NSW, and wife of the Labour politician and foreign minister, Bert (Doc) Evatt, he managed to retain his position at the Art Gallery and produce a catalogue of its Australian paintings. When Smith resigned from the Education Department and left the Gallery, Tony Tuckson and Daniel Thomas continued Smith’s legacy with annual acquisition catalogues. Importantly, he was awarded a research scholarship at the newly established Australian National University in Canberra, completed his doctorate within two years and commenced as a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne’s Fine Arts department in 1956. With his colleagues Professor Joseph Burke, Franz Philip and Dr Ursula Hoff, Smith consolidated art history as an academic discipline in Australia.
In 1959, Bernard Smith convened a group of seven emerging figurative painters known as ‘The Antipodeans’. True to form, he introduced a political agenda directed at international abstraction and what he saw as American cultural imperialism. It was also his way of illuminating Australia’s identity within the new post-war internationalism. Many art historians see Smith’s attachment to figuration and social realism and his opposition to abstraction as reflecting his staunch attachment to a Eurocentric and traditional view of weltgeist, but it also had to do with his rejection of any avant-garde movement that threatened to dismantle a historical perspective. As he said ‘we still have to interrogate images for their validity and intention’. By challenging the cultural centres Smith gained the reputation as ‘policeman of the arts’, but the Antipodean Exhibition also divided the Australian art community and was pivotal in launching him into the battlefield of contemporary and global art politics.

By 1962 his major survey Australian Painting was published, a book that ‘furnished’ the minds of many art historians and still provides currency today. In 1967 he was appointed the inaugural Director of the Power Institute and the Power Professor of Contemporary Art at the University of Sydney, a post in which he shaped that institution for a decade. During that time he established the Power Lectures with Clement Greenberg giving the inaugural lecture. It was however, a difficult period for Smith, whose ideologies were often considered anachronistic and at odds with a number of his staff. Peter Beilharz considers ‘Modernism is always looking backwards. Part of its identity precedes it, existing as … a reference’. In many ways Bernard Smith epitomised modernism’s traditions and relished looking backwards.

Bernard Smith achieved many things in his long life. He was a foundation member of the Australian Academy of Humanities; The Age art critic; he helped establish the Australian studio at Cité International des Arts in Paris; was involved in saving the suburb of Glebe from freeway destruction; was active in anti-Vietnam and anti-nuclear protests; and received awards in recognition of his contribution to the Arts. As much as he resisted criticism of his work he knew he had to step aside for new generations of art and cultural historians, many of whom he had trained. As art history’s eminent grise what concerned Smith, even when his ‘vision was lacking’, was to keep the dialogue open, the arguments alive and the disciplines defined.

On retiring in 1977 he and Kate returned to Melbourne where he continued to lecture, mentor and publish extensively on colonialism and post-colonialism, life writing, native dispossession, art and modernism. His final book The Formalesque (2007) was a determined revision of a style cycle belonging to modernism, as well as his way of clearing the ground for a better reading of the post-modern condition. Claude Levi Strauss said ‘There is no history without dates … for history’s entire originality and distinctive nature lies in apprehending the relation between before and after’. It was precisely these pressure points in historical change that were important to Bernard who sought to make art and its history as accessible and comprehensible as possible. As he was fond of saying  ‘Art history is not a kind of art it’s a kind of history’. But it was as an Antipodean outsider, as the ‘other’, that enabled him to see a ‘reverse perspective’, distance himself from the norm, challenge orthodox views and assess the ‘big picture’ with striking clarity.  This is what made him such a distinctive scholar.
In 1989 Kate died, and Bernard remarried in 1995. In his last years there were many admirers who visited and paid homage. One thing remains undisputed, he was not only a major player in the course of Australian art history; he defined it.
Baptised Catholic he also specified a Catholic funeral service, stressing however that, ‘I will die an atheist’. Bernard Smith was a Marxist to the end, one who had tempered his politics with the sage knowledge that in life we are measured by our achievements. He is survived by his son John Smith, daughter Elizabeth Heathcote, four grandchildren, four great grandchildren, two half brothers and his second wife Maggi Smith.

Dr Sheridan Palmer.


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