Writing the Life of Bernard Smith

Writing the Life of Bernard Smith

Dr Sheridan Palmer explores the life of art historian and cultural critic Bernard Smith

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, Smith wrote that the poem ‘is not a room to be entered by means of one key’. Those words 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 Smith was an exceptionally well organised man and an assiduous archivist of his life. 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.

Francis Reiss, Bernard Smith, 1987, nla.cat-vn776703

Smith’s formidable scholarly range is generally well known, from the art of Cook’s voyages and Pacific history to modernism, from social realism to cultural imperialism, but I was also seeking to explore his emotional gradations, find his Achilles heel and note the degrees of his egocentrism. Smith was adamant that no door be left unopened and that his life be fully aired and bared—a challenge in itself. Although I was prepared to go along with this, occasionally I had to question his motives. Biography is the perfect platform for sensational revelations that can either resurrect or jaundice reputations. Did he archive his life selectively with an eye for posterity as much as for personal vanity? In Smith’s case, his ego was well tempered by his Marxist values, a commitment to historical fidelity and truthful outcomes. All this was a magnificent gift to a biographer.

As I followed Smith from birth and childhood in Burwood, a working-class suburb of Sydney, through adolescence and the Great Depression, to London and Europe in the late 1940s, 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. Bernard Smith understood distance very well; as an illegitimate child and fostered ward of the state, there was emotional distance both within his kind foster family and between him and society. He came to value his position at the margins: ‘I am thinking of distance, or more precisely distancing as an intellectual tool both for aesthetic evaluation and for the writing of history’.

Bernard Smith was also acutely sensitive to origins and identity, his own and Australia’s: ‘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:

being Antipodean … is a relationship that is global. Derived from the Greek word antipous, meaning ‘having 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 Smith was always mindful of where his antipodes was. Whether it was the forest recesses of the Blue Mountains where Smith 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 with the concept of locality and universality, regionalism and globalism, as well as the politics and aesthetics of place. In a BBC broadcast in 1950, Smith led his British listeners through the unique qualities of the Australian landscape and how it had created a distinct type of painting. From colonial, romantic and impressionist art, he arrived at one of his favourite artists, Russell Drysdale, who he said painted the landscape as though he were ‘half in love and half in fear of his subject … because the Australian landscape is … a wilful capricious thing, half‐wild, half‐tame, half‐myth and half-reality’. 

Russell Drysdale, Port Essington, 1980, nla.cat-vn2552219

Smith’s approach to analysing the cultural mood of a period was pioneering. Colonial art, for example, was not Australian art but rather European art made in Australia, ‘a kind of brand name’ as Smith put it. Artists like John Glover, Augustus Earle, Conrad Martens or Eugene von Guérard were ‘the messengers who transplanted the styles and institutions based upon the European art systems as they knew them’. Smith’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 mark it today. It is also why he was nominated a member of the Australian Humanities Research Council in 1956.

A significant legacy of Smith’s illegitimacy and state welfare upbringing was his acute sensitivity to the ‘unequal exchange’ and concern about inequality and the underdogs of society. It was why identity mattered to him and why he remained a Marxist. It emboldened him to challenge systems, think provocatively and tackle huge, fertile projects without fear or favour. As he said, ‘the risk is worth taking if it is justifiable’. This is what made Bernard Smith such a distinctive and exciting scholar and 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. Like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Bernard Smith remains an enduring presence, a revisionist of origins and identity, both global and Australian.

Dr Sheridan Palmer is an art historian and curator. This article was adapted from a public lecture given at the Library on 16 June 2016 at the launch of her biography Hegel’s Owl: The Life of Bernard Smith (Sydney: Power Publications, 2016).