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Smith, Bernard William (1916–2011)

by Sheridan Palmer

Bernard Smith, photo courtesy of Francis Reiss

Bernard Smith, photo courtesy of Francis Reiss

With the death of the eminent art historian Bernard Smith, a chapter closes in Australian intellectual life. He was a rigorous historian of Australia's cultural development and an astute critic of art and society, and was recognised as the father of Australian art history — a distinction bestowed for the value and weight of his scholarship, his contribution to art and his far-reaching influence on generations of art and cultural historians.

Smith's importance went beyond those disciplines, with many anthropologists, cross-cultural historians and mainstream intellectuals valuing his work. 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''.

For almost 70 years Smith worked and wrote at the coalface of contemporary socio-politics and cultural change, but it was his interest in Australia's cultural identity, its ''antipodeanism'', that preoccupied 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. Initially self-trained — he confined himself to the Mitchell Library in the evenings — he wrote a revision of the cultural development of Australia, Place, Taste and Tradition (1945).

What mattered to Smith 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 agree is his masterpiece. This contextualised Australia's historical roots and gave Smith his credentials as 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 ''art as information''. His tendency to seek out differing positions and his interest in the power relations of ''centre'' and peripheries, especially the duality of the dominant and subordinate, profoundly interested him.

Bernard William Smith was born in a small worker's cottage in Sydney on October 3, 1916, the illegitimate son of a young Irish immigrant woman. He was 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 — and learnt the lessons of economic, social and emotional distance.

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: The Portrait of a Lucky Young Bastard (1984), won both the Victorian Premier's Literary Award and the National Book Council Prize. He was trained as a primary school teacher, then seconded to the NSW Art Gallery as an education officer in 1944, where he organised large touring exhibitions to regional NSW.

In 1941, Smith married Kate Challis, referring to her as his ''civilising influence''; she also acted as his research assistant, translator and gatekeeper. In 1948, he 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.

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 Mary Alice Evatt's assistance he managed to retain his position at the art gallery and produce a catalogue of its Australian paintings. He was awarded a research scholarship at the newly-established Australian National University in Canberra and completed his doctorate. He started 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, 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, but it was also his way of illuminating Australia's identity within the new post-war internationalism. ''We still have to interrogate images for their validity and intention,'' he said. By challenging the cultural centres Smith gained a reputation as ''policeman of the arts'', but the Antipodean Exhibition 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 and in 1967 he was appointed the inaugural director of the Power Institute at the University of Sydney, a post in which he shaped that institution.

Smith achieved many things in his life. He was a foundation member of the Australian Academy of Humanities; art critic for The Age; helped establish the Australian studio at Cite 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 for his contribution to the arts.

When he retired 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. Kate died in 1989 and in 1995 he remarried.

Smith was baptised a Catholic and specified a Catholic funeral service, stressing, however, that, "I will die an atheist". He was a Marxist to the end, but tempered his politics with the knowledge that in life we are measured by our achievements. Bernard Smith is survived by his wife, Maggi, children John and Elizabeth, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 September 2011

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Citation details

Sheridan Palmer, 'Smith, Bernard William (1916–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/smith-bernard-william-13884/text24752, accessed 22 October 2014.

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