Hegel's Owl by Sheridan Palmer
The Life of Bernard Smith
Dr Gerard Vaughan AM, Director of the National Gallery of Australia, launches Hegel’s Owl: The Life of Bernard Smith, which reveals the unique character of an exceptional man. Beginning life as a ward of the state, Smith went on to become a pre-eminent figure of Australian art history.
About the author
Dr Sheridan Palmer is an art historian and curator and honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne. Her previous books include Dean Bowen: Argy-Bargy (Macmillan, 2009) and Centre of the Periphery: Three European Art Historians in Melbourne (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2008).
In association with the Power Institute Foundation for Art and Visual Culture.
Transcript of ‘Hegel’s Owl: The Life of Bernard Smith’
Speakers: Anne-Marie Schwirtlich (A), Professor Mark Ledbury (M), Gerard Vaughan (G), Audience (AU), Sheridan Palmer (S)
Location: National Library of Australia
A: Distinguished guests and dear friends, welcome to the National Library of Australia. I'm Anne-Marie Schwirtlich, Director-General of the National Library. As we begin, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, I thank their elders, past and present, for this land that we are now privileged to call home.
We are here to launch Hegels Owl: The Life of Bernard Smith by Dr Sheridan Palmer, an art historian, curator and honorary fellow at the University of Melbourne. Congratulations, Sheridan, on a mighty achievement. And we're delighted to welcome you back to the library to celebrate the culmination of your research. Sheridan was a Harold White Fellow at the Library in 2010, spending her days in this building immersed in Bernard Smith's life. We are honoured to hold his papers in our collection donated to us through the Australian Government's cultural gifts program. The one hundred boxes contain among many other things, letters, hand-written drafts and notes for articles, appointment books, journals, badges and medals, photographs and drawings.
Sheridan describes this archive together with Bernard Smith's two autobiographies and his annotated library, which is at the State Library Victoria, as the marrow of her biography.
It is a great pleasure to welcome our neighbour, Dr Gerard Vaughan, Director of the National Gallery to the Library. Gerard and Sheridan worked together in 2013, when Sheridan interviewed him for the Library's oral history project on Australian Art.
Bernard Smith is a towering figure in Australian art history and its intellectual and cultural development. And we are delighted that Gerard will do the honours tonight and launch Hegels Owl.
With this launch we're very pleased to continue our relationship with the Power Institute Foundation for Art and Visual Culture. In 2014, the Power Institute partnered with us to produce the exhibition Abstraction Creation J W Power in Europe 1921‑1938, drawing on the collections of the Institute and of the library to tell the fascinating story of J W Power.
Professor Mark Ledbury, Director of the Power Institute, is also with us this evening. Bernard Smith was the founding director of the Power Institute and so Professor Ledbury is his institutional successor. Through Power Publishing, Professor Ledbury is also the publisher of this excellent biography. I hold it up for you to recognise that in the bookshop later this evening.
In her acknowledgements, Sheridan thanks Professor Ledbury for his faith in her to write Bernard Smith's biography, and so it is perfect that we can welcome him to the podium to continue tonight's proceedings. Welcome, Mark.
M: Thank you very much and a very good evening to everyone. Thank you so much for coming. And yes I'm delighted to be standing here and in slightly trepidations, of course, as everyone since Bernard has been to be to inherit the shoes of the Power professorship. But also because the Power Institute's mission, which is really to insight, to catalyse, to diffuse ideas in the visual arts, is one that remains vital, as vital as it was ... as vital now as it was in the late '60s, and I just ... I'm afraid I'm going to break out of my speech for a minute to remind everybody here that if you don't know already, tomorrow is the day of action for the arts. Friday 17th. We need to make everybody aware of what John Power was aware of, of what Bernard Smith was aware of, that that art is a fundamental impulse in human life, not froth on the surface of things, that the arts are a vital plank of any nation that considers itself to be in any way doing something more than existing. So tomorrow, galvanised by Bernard or whatever galvanises you, protest, sign a petition, stand up for the arts. They need you. Anyway, back to my plot.
Power does a lot of its engagement now via publications of one kind or another and we're absolutely delighted that we slightly push the boat out beyond perhaps our traditional remit of the academic, if you like, to publish something that we really believe has wide importance generally to the cultural history of Australia and to the ... to literature and to the writing of Australia's history. And I am absolutely delighted that we are standing here and celebrating the achievement of Sheridan.
But I must also thank the other people that made this come to be, and I must certainly first thank ... first Emma White and then particularly Marnie Williams, our publications director, who really worked so closely with Marnie and the editing team. Mimi Kelly, who's here tonight, and all of those who helped Sheridan put this book together. I think Sheridan will add some thanks herself. We're pub ... the fact that we can do this, that we can publish and spread the word is very much a smell of an oily rag kind of procedure to be honest. And it is remarkable that occasional and part of a small team that has made this come about. So I must say that. If you want to find out more about Power Publications you can go to www.powerpublications.com.au which was a treasure trove, veritably, I tell you.
Anyway, I'm very delighted here that Sheridan is enjoying very much the fruits of her labours and I know how thoughtfully and skilfully and patiently she worked on this fascinating biography of a complex thinker who deserves to be understood as a great Australian intellectual figure and writer as well as a pioneering art historian. But my main purpose tonight is to introduce our distinguished launcher, Dr Gerard Vaughan as better known to many of you here than perhaps to me because, as you know, he held a post at the University of Oxford and the British Museum, returned to Melbourne where he had studied as the Director of the National Gallery of Victoria in 1999 which you will know heralded a new era in expansion and prosperity of the NGV, both in terms of buildings and in exhibitions and kind of the weight of the institution, setting standards for the whole of Australia in his galvanising of support, enthusiasm and financial backing indeed for the visual arts.
He's an art historian, though, with great interest, broad interest, including the study of taste and art collecting, both private and institutional. And he has written on the post-impressionist painter, Maurice Denis, but then took doctoral research on the classical ... classical antiquities, collecting of them and their taste-making in eighteenth century Europe. And particularly also looking at the art market in Rome. But having stepped down from the directorship of the NGV, he then took some of those interests further and wrote a study of private art collecting in Australia which I'm not quite sure if it's ... it's en route, it's coming out with Melbourne University press. And again, I think that story will intersect with Bernard's story at several points. But, it's my great delight this evening, without further ado, to introduce Gerard Vaughan.
G: Well thank you very much and good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I've been asked in launching this book to make some broad comments about what the book covers and the trajectory of Bernard's life as it's presented to us in Sheridan's remarkable book. And I can only begin by saying that she's produced an epic biography, I think that's the best way to describe it. One that addresses in an insightful, intelligent way, the life and thinking of a man that she describes as, and I'm quoting, the father of Australian art history and again as one of Australia's most brilliant and pioneering intellectuals. Bernard Smith's viewpoint was always profoundly Australian and antipodean, and that's a word you'll get to know very well indeed when you read this book.
So in writing the biography, Sheridan has produced a riveting account of the cultural history of Australia over more than half a century, and she reveals to us the mind and writings of Bernard Smith, and it really is a wonderful read. He was involved in so many of the big issues of the day. Really, he led from the front on so many of these. And because his writings were and of course remain so influential, this biography instantly becomes a key source for anyone interested in understanding the issues and the arguments which define visual culture in Australia at that time.
Bernard weighed into every debate, and his opinions were noticed. Well Sheridan tells us in her introduction that Bernard himself invited her to write this biography and it's very clear the minute you begin to read it that it's been a labour of love for a good number of years. And in fact you've just told me about five years in fact of very, very concentrated work. And of course there are many different perspectives which were presented at the joint University of Melbourne and Power Institute, University of Sydney Symposium, the legacies of Bernard Smith in 2012 and I gather that's sort of the publications about to come out, isn't it.
AU: It's literally just come out. It will be launched in Sydney in July.
G: Oh that's fantastic. So this biography is timely and I think it's perfectly positioned in fact. And as you read it you're going to become aware of the sympathy that Sheridan has for her subject, that his intellectual journey has necessarily become hers. And you sense throughout a wonderful understanding of where he came from intellectually, his enthusiasms, what we might describe as the building blocks of his life, and Sheridan has entered that world in particular through, of course, his library and those annotated volumes that you've used so much which are now in the State Library of Victoria, as Anne-Marie has said.
The early years are well covered. His illegitimate birth, he's been fostered and yet remaining in touch with his birth mother, Rose-Anne Tierney, and all the issues which flow from that, and the poignant statement that when his foster mother, Mary Keen, died, he was excluded by her family from attending the funeral and mourning her in any kind of family context. So the early chapters document an incredible and inspiring story of survival and determination, nurtured by his voracious reading. And off we go then with ... in Sheridan's book [chuckling], we go ... she talks about the influence of Hegel on him, we go to Darwin's origin of the species which, as you say, gave him intellectual liberation.
We're taken through his expanding knowledge base. He devoured Burckhardt's Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, and then on to Marx, to Lenin and Tolstoy. Herbert read on art and society, and of course in those early days at least on surrealist ideas so through that he read Breton, Éluard, he looked at Miró, Dali, and of course he developed a familiarity with the French symbolist, with T S Eliot, with the socialist writings of William Morris. And the book documents his scholarly trails. He became, despite all those issues in his early life he became the dux of his school, he won a bursary to Sydney Teachers College, and his first ever teaching job was in a primary school in a very remote part of rural New South Wales. And Sheridan absolutely describes this period as, and I quote her, ‘a decade in which his transformation from a primary school teacher into one of Australia's most brilliant young art historians and cultural critics was little short of spectacular.’ And I think that should really guide us and influence us as we work our way through this remarkable book.
And if the first part of the biography does anything, I think it demonstrates Bernard's new sort of intellectual and social self-confidence, what he achieved. Because he became involved not just with Marxist thinking and theory, but directly he joined the Communist Party of Australia, he took art lessons at Julian Ashen's Academy and in 1940 he painted two incredibly powerful works: ‘The Advance of Lot and His Brethren’, strongly influenced by El Greco, and then ‘Pompeii’. And Sheridan describes the first, and as again I quote her, ‘a requiem for a disintegrating society’. And, of course, he watched in horror when he was a bit younger what happened in Spain, of course, during the Civil War. And while of course these works had clear affinities with aspects of surrealist practice, they were in fact included in that wonderful 1993 surrealist exhibition at the NGA here in Canberra. It also has more relevance, perhaps, as a kind of precursor of that mythical figuration practised by Arthur Boyd. For example, influenced by Flemish masters, and Sheridan reminds us several times, I think very appropriately, of Bernard's admiration for Yates and his symbolic poetry through the lens of Celtic mythology, so the same concept, bringing the romantic myth of the past into the present. And I can say, happily, my predecessor, Ron Radford, managed to acquire both of these for the NGA collection in 2008. So they're now securely here in Canberra.
Bernard was absorbed in to the Sydney avant-garde and he began also to spend more time in Melbourne forming friendships with key Melbourne painters such as Boyd, Percival, Blackman, Tucker, Bergner. It was a period of titanic battles between modernists and conservators in Australian society, and again showed and writes articulately about Bernard's embrace of the central European and largely Jewish intelligencia who came to Australia from at that time.
I can't emphasise enough, I'm going to say it a couple of times during these remarks, the degree to which Sheridan's biography of Bernard must, by definition, become an account of Australia's intellectual and cultural history.
In 1944, and many of you will know this, he got a job at the Art Gallery of New South Wales as an education officer, but through that he met people like Charles Lloyd‑Jones, Mary and Clive Evatt, and a lot of things began to develop and take off. And the interests which led to his first major publishing success, Place, Taste and Tradition, began to form at this time. And then, of course, he met the English-born Kate Chalice whom he married and again there's a very sort of interesting account of their relationship, and the family life of Bernard and his wife and their children.
So Sheridan's clear thoughtful accounts of his emergence as a major art historian then becomes a central focus of the rest of the book. And everything is carefully placed in context. I'm just ... I often read passages that Sheridan has created, thinking I could never get those complex ideas together in such a succinct couple of lines, but it's really one of the great strengths of the books. And she documents the development of those ideas which above all can define his contribution and we all know that, you know, Bernard's ideas about empire and the colonies, the centre and periphery, the case for, I suppose, realism and also for regionalism. And the book, Place, Taste and Tradition, was a big success and he came ... he saw himself as a kind of proselytiser for the idea of art as reflecting society and art as being a force for quite fundamental change.
And Keith Murdoch's hope—'cause Melbourne keeps coming into the story—that Bernard might become deputy director of the NGV came to nothing, and one of the factors was his affiliation with the Communist Party. So woven through the following pages and chapters we find many references to this issue, including his difficulties in securing a US visa and indeed in London being followed by MI5. And in due course Bernard became completely disillusioned with communism following particularly, as we read, a visit to Eastern Europe in 1948 when he was in ... studying in London. And in 1950, just as he returned to Sydney, he returned his card to the Communist Party of Australia.
The development of the scholar then becomes central in the book. We learn that he studied classics at Sydney University under Dale Trendall, who taught him certain methodologies of connoisseurship. And then, with the help of Joseph Burke in Melbourne, he was accepted for the court audience to tute at the University of London and was awarded a British Council research scholarship.
Now, Sheridan's account of Bernard Smith confronting Anthony Blunt's patrician behaviour and approach, and his much happier transfer to the Warburg Institute where he worked with Charles Mitchell, does in fact make very very interesting reading.
One of the things that I've most enjoyed about the book is the documentation of London's Australian cultural diaspora in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. So I'm going to be thumbing through the book on many many occasions to work out who was where when. But it is actually very very helpful the way that all of that is documented. In 1949 he became interested in promoting an Australian exhibition for London, but he was persuaded by Kenneth Clarke who was just back from Australia and from meeting Nolan Drysdale and others, that it was not probably the right time. But it was a project he hankered after, only to be gazumped a decade later when Brian Robertson of the White Chapel gallery swept in and produced that highly popular and very famous and influential exhibition. As Sheridan puts it, Robertson had stolen Bernard's thunder and marginalised him. But nevertheless, it was very very important event.
Now the observations on Bernard's wish to get Australian art publicly exhibited in London and talked about, are extremely interesting, one of the best parts of the book in fact. And surely these observations and the ideas and attempts that she documents, should be the subject perhaps of a major symposium, which could conclude perhaps what the NGAs London Royal Academy Exhibition of a couple of years ago and the critical response.
Well in the late 1940s, he met and befriended Rex Nan Kivell, whose astonishing collections held right here in Canberra. And this was the period of his pioneering research which of course led to European vision of the South Pacific, a book which I've always believed to be one of the greater studies ever published on enlightenment ideas. And the evolution of the research and the underlying thesis is explored again in exemplary detail. It really is a wonderful and engaging read.
I'm not going to talk about Bernard's time in Canberra because I know that's what Sheridan is going to talk about in a moment. But, of course, back to Melbourne, back to teaching in the new department of fine arts at the University of Melbourne and that brought access to Ursula Hoff at the NGV, to Eric Westbrook and others. And of course his association with artists was crucial and perhaps we think of him most of all as the person who really devised the antipodean manifesto of 1959 when he joined with the Boyds, with Blackburn, Percival ... and Blackman I should say and Percival and Pugh, artists were determined to exhibit representative works often with an Australian sort of mythic quality but it was very much a rejection of international abstraction. That's to say that he preferred and promoted a kind of figurative regionalism. 1962 saw the publication of that incredible Australian painting which went into so many additions when I was a student, an undergraduate, it was a book I looked at closely and constantly.
But it's interesting because Sheridan takes us through the reviews, what people said about it and a lot of people did make the comment that it was rather loaded rhetoric, I think is the term that you use. And, in other words, that he chose things that suited him, suited his thesis and his beliefs and his ideals and left other things out. And I have to say I had my own little experience of that in the 1970s when, as an undergraduate, I began reading in some depth primary sources on the visual culture of Melbourne in the 1880s and 1890s. And I began to realise that what I thought the reality that I was discovering was really rather different to what Bernard Smith had published. So it was a very interesting sort of exercise in, you know, art historiography to think about these kinds of issues as a young emerging sort of art historian. So the huge issue of the day of course was, in the Australian art world, was the power bequest a staggering one million. I’m not going to say anymore about that, but you’ve heard from Mark, his successor, that he occupied that chair and the post of director for a decade from ’67 to ’77, and Sheridan can be tough at times and she makes the point the perhaps Bernard’s appointment and the time there might not overall be regarded as an unqualified success. There were issues about it which go right for the heart of what really interested Bernard in fact and it makes very, very good reading.
Then two majors books of course, Documents on Art and Taste in Australia, the antipodean manifesto again, which Sheridan reminds us, Bernard regarded as some of his best research and writing. Then the 1980 Boyer Lectures, The Spectre of Truganini, really broke new ground and made an enormous sort of contribution to discussions about indigenous aspirations. Then, in 1998 he published Moderism’s History, a monumental attempt to understand the development of the modern movement and to distinguish modernism from post-modernism. And for the first time, perhaps, the critical response was very uneven and in some cases quite negative, particularly concerning Bernard’s invention of and promotion of the world formalesque, to define and describe the principal trajectory of contemporary art from 1890 up 'til the 1970s. Now not to be deterred, he published another salvo, a different book, entitled The Formalesque, in 2007, and Bernard asked me to launch it at the NGV and in some ways it was a tough gig because it was a wonderful book, good to read and yet I too shared some of those concerns that others had. Whether perhaps the word formalesque was just too limiting. So it was interesting but it forced me to really read both books very carefully and to make the point that Bernard of course was saying absolutely the right thing. It is a logical argument that if you’re writing about art produced, perhaps almost a hundred years ago, the word modernism isn’t all that helpful. In other words there needs to be an appropriate alternative. But, look, again, to understand all of those sort of issues, just read the book and it’s very, very subtly and thoughtfully handled by Sheridan. Well, all I’m going to say now, I’ve been asked to launch the book so I think all I can say is, the book is launched. It’s ... it really is a fantastic read. I loved every minute of it and I read it sort of through a day and a night actually, ‘cause I ... and I really, I could hardly put it down. It does Bernard proud and it’s a fascinating read through the prism of Bernard’s writing and thinking. I think it helps us to know ourselves.
S: Thank you, Gerard. That was marvellous, and I have to say, Gerard and I seem to have been establishing something of a tradition. He launched my first book in 2008 and I’m probably encouraged now to think that I should write another one so he can launch that. I’d also like to thank you, Anne-Marie, it’s wonderful being back here, and of course this is where I spent so much time working my way through Bernard and it’s just such a pleasure. And of course to Mark, thank you also for your faith in taking this book on without having seen the manuscript at the time. And I think Bernard would be proud, I have to say. I won’t spend too much more time.
I’d like to start on my words, few words. As you can see I’ve titled the talk, ‘Not a Room to be Entered by Means of One Key’. Sometime between 1954 and 1956 when Bernard Smith was working on his PhD at the newly established Australian National University, he deviated from his thesis to write a piece of literary criticism. It was on the connection between the astronomer William Wales, who accompanied Captain James Cook on his second voyage in 1772 and Samuel Coleridge’s poem, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. Early in the essay, and Bernard considered it one of the best pieces of research he ever did, Smith wrote this beguiling sentence: ‘All who have felt the haunting and dream-like power of the poem know well enough that the ancient mariner is not a room to be entered by means of one key.’ Those words, not a room to be entered by means of one key, struck me as absolutely appropriate for the writing of biography. A person’s life is like a house with many rooms and it is the biographer’s job to locate the doors, find the right keys and enter. Fortunately, Bernard was an exceptionally organised, well-archived man, as his library can attest. So he left ... sorry, as this library can attest. So he left most keys well labelled, and I was able to follow his life without difficulty—and what a life. One that spanned a dramatically changing world in which tradition and the atom were split, and global extremes became the new symbolic passport. Smith’s formidable scholarly range is generally well known, from the art of Captain Cook’s voyages and oceanic history to moderism’s history, from social realism to cultural imperialism. But once into his extensive mindscape I had to grasp his emotional gradations and find his Achilles heel and note the degrees of his egocentrisms. He was adamant that no door be left unopened and this, his life, be fully aired and bared, and that was a challenge in itself. And while I was prepared to go along with him, occasionally I had to question Smith’s motives and why he wanted to disclose highly sensitive material.
Biography is the perfect platform for revealing the inner and outer life, sensational revelations that can either resurrect or jaundice reputations. And when we have an assiduously archived person like Bernard Smith, one must ask whether it was the historian’s foresight to keep important and seemingly minor documents, or whether his selectivity was an eye for posterity as much as for personal vanity. In Smith’s case, his ego was extremely well tempered by his socialist and Marxist values, a commitment to historical fidelity and truthful outcomes, and all of this was without a doubt a magnificent biographer’s gift.
As I followed Smith from birth and childhood to in Burwood, a working class suburb of Sydney, through adolescence and the great depression, to London and Europe in the late ‘40s, Canberra and Melbourne during the 1950s, back and forth to Europe and occasionally to the USA, the notion of distance, both geographic and intellectual, emerged as a major key. Bernard understood distance very well. As an illegitimate child and fostered ward of the state, there was emotional distance, even within his kind foster family. In particular, there was a palpable distance between him and society. He was a child living in the margins. As he matured, he understood the necessity of keeping and using distance to see things whole. As he said, I’m thinking of distance or more precisely, distancing, as an intellectual tool, both for aesthetic evaluation and for the writing of history. And this is why I called the biography Hegel’s Owl, for it was the philosopher Hegel, one of Bernard’s most important intellectual guides, who wrote, and I quote Hegel, ‘the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk’. It is a magnificent metaphor for understanding events with the aid of temporal distance, a rear view, as Bernard called it. He insistently role played Minerva’s owl. Bernard Smith was also acutely sensitive to origins and identity, especially his own and as well as that of Australia's. This is how he put it ... origins are strange things and to be born outside of the conventions of a whole social structure is to be critical forever.
Of the larger picture, he wrote, and I think this is really extremely important, it under‑marks Bernard’s entire philosophy, ‘being antipodean is a relationship that is global. Derived from the Greek work antipous, meaning have the feet opposite. It requires the existence of two terms, as agents, places, persons or things, diametrically opposed to each other on the earth’s surface. Such positions are infinite. Any place on the globe can be antipodal to the other.’ It was where one stood that made all the difference, and Bernard was always mindful of where his antipodeas was.
Geography is a form of mapping that gives one certainty of place and place for Bernard was important. It was integral to his identity. Land anchors you. You may not own it but it possesses you. Whether it was the forest, recesses of the Blue Mountains where Bernard ran as a boy, or rural New South Wales, where he worked as a young school teacher in the 1930s or the long red ridge of the Australian interior seen from a plane, these unique features—distinctly Australian—provided Smith was the concept of locality and universality, regionalism and the global, as well as the politics and aesthetics of place. Landscape permeates a great deal of Bernard’s work as does the political.
In the biography I mention how in a BBC broadcast in 1950, Bernard led his British listeners through the unique qualities of the Australian landscape and how it had created a distinct type of painting. From the colonial romantic and impressionist art, he arrived at one of his favourite artists, Russell Drysdale, who he said painted the landscape as though he was half in love, half in fear of his subject, because the Australian landscape is a wilful capricious thing, half wild, half tame, half myth, half reality. Artists shape our vision, and Bernard understood the necessity of articulating those visions. As he said, art history is a kind of biography. For him, artists mattered.
In 1944 Bernard Smith accompanied Mary Alice Everett, the National Art Gallery of New South Wales’ first female trustee to this city, where they set up an exhibition of modern paintings in the Masonic Lodge. I’m sorry, but I can’t remember, nor do I know, where the old Masonic Lodge was, but Canberra was then a small country town with little more than 7,000 people, and Oskar Spate, the inaugural Professor of Geography at the ANU and a critical intellectual influence on Bernard, noted bottled milk, which had been promised in 1938, for 1939, didn’t arrive until 1954, so one had to put the billy out. Bernard’s encounter with the new national capital was viewed with the eye of an up and coming cultural historian. And I quote a few lines from a poem that he wrote about Canberra at the time, ‘the capital of Australia is a sort of permanent gesture scratched in the earth with a large compass, white buildings in a planned wilderness. This city lives in the future, its archives in the past.’ White buildings in a planned wilderness ... words that build an image and the design of the city was scratched in the earth with a large compass, perhaps something like William Blake’s powerful image of Newton and the civilized hand of science inscribing itself of the earth.
Bernard knew how to compress words into the visual, historical and geographical. Words mattered and meaning had to be succinct and clarify. In 1834, while sailing on the Beagle, Charles Darwin, another important figure in Bernard’s development, wrote, ‘the meridian of the antipodes, this airy barrier, and all such resting places for the imagination are like shadows which a man moving onwards cannot catch’. When Bernard Smith embarked on his career as a cultural critic in the early 1940s, he wanted to investigate those shadows and locate the antipodes, not as an airy barrier on the periphery, but a legitimate place. Instead of Australia being categorised as a poor culturally deficient thing, a second rate imitation of Europe’s great cultural edifice, Bernard placed antipodal inversion, having the feet opposite, on centre stage. Not only did he give provincialism a centre, but he argued that the Pacific had significantly defined Europe, especially as a burgeoning imperial power during the 18th and 19th century. It was a two-way identity process. Equally, he noted, and I quote ... in the Pacific, it was not only trade and commerce that followed the flat but also scientific theory. Discovery and the theory of evolution not only transformed power in terms of possession, but it also operated as a powerful anodyne for the suppression of guilt when dealing with the subjugation, and all too often extermination, of what the British called lesser breeds. In Bernard Smith’s 1980 Boyer lectures, The Spectre of Truganini, he named the colonial crime and the present as having potential for redemptive atonement and liberation.
Once of Smith’s main arguments was how information, ideas, taste and style, in other words cultural values, are carried and exchanged between individuals, countries and hemispheres, and one of the most important resources that he relied on in his research was the Rex Nan Kivell collection held here. Bernard met Nan Kivell in London in 1948, just as the first shipment of Nan Kivell’s treasures and artefacts were on their way to Australia. And when you put together what the two men stand for, Nan Kivell’s extraordinary collection and Smith’s scholarship, we find the real beginnings of oceanic studies, post-colonialism, and the revision of Australia’s cultural inheritance. Indeed cultural encounters and convergence was one of the most important rooms in Bernard’s mind for contact, whether between the coloniser and the colonised, between the marginalised state ward and the elite, yielded both understanding of the individual and his or her place within society and cultures.
Bernard’s approach to analysing the cultural mood of a period, whether imperial Britain, colonial Australia or the global 20th century, was pioneering. His formulation of historic development and modern thought prised open Australia’s colonial history to reveal its fascinating records of social origins and urban progress through art. Colonial art was not Australian art but rather European art made in Australia, a kind of brand name as Bernard put it. Artists like John Glover, Augustus Earle, Conrad Martens and Eugene Von Guerard, were the messengers who transplanted the styles and institutions based upon the European art systems as they knew them. Bernard’s questioning of Australia’s early cultural identity laid a solid foundation for future art and cultural historians to reappraise the conditions that continue to market today. It is also why he was nominated a member of the Australian Humanities Research Council in 1956, in recognition of his brilliant dissertation European vision in the South Pacific.
And finally, a significant legacy of Bernard’s illegitimacy and state welfare upbringing was his acute sensitivity to the unequal exchange. It was why identity mattered to him and why he remained a Marxist. He was always concerned about inequality and the underdogs of society. It emboldened him to challenge systems, think provocatively and to tackle huge fertile projects without fear or favour. As he said, the risk of worth taking if it is justifiable. This is what made Bernard Smith such a distinctive and exciting scholar, a magnificent intellectual. He pushed arguments out into the public domain and kept them alive because they mattered to the moral and cultural fibre of Australia. Being oppositional was another way of being antipodean but it was his colossal contribution to the shaping of the arts in Australia that continues to see him rehabilitated within and outside the academy. Like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Bernard Smith remains an enduring presence, a revisionist of origins and identity, both global and antipodean. Thank you very much.
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