The following tribute was published in Art Guide Australia, November/December 2011, pp.48-50
On 2nd September this year, Australia lost one of its most original and important thinkers. Aged 94, Professor Bernard Smith had long been hailed as the ‘father of Australian art history’ but, at their sparkling best, his writings crossed the boundaries of cultural studies, anthropology, comparative literature and sociology. I remember vividly the first time I met Bernard Smith. It was September 2003, and I was a graduate student at the University of Melbourne. Although in his retirement, the eminent scholar had agreed to an interview to discuss his recollections of the Australian art world of the late 1960s.
Arriving at Jeanville, Smith’s terrace home in Fitzroy, I was ushered amiably to a seat in the front parlour beneath a large still-life by the colonial artist William Beulow Gould. To my right sat a glass display case filled with the many editions of Smith’s impresive ouvre – from his 1945 classic Place, Taste and Tradition throughto his 2002 autobiography A Pavane to Another Time. In that lone cabinet stood a virtual historiography of Australian art history, so it was with some trepidation that I offered my first question, an ice-breaker about Smith’s role in organising the 1968 visit to Australia by the American critic Clement Greenberg. “Well,” declared Smith in his distinctive warm but school-masterly tone, “we can get to that in a minute, but first, why don’t you pass me a piece of that cake.” Over the next few hours, consuming tea and jam-sponge, Smith generously recounted his first years as Professor of Contemporary Art at the newly founded Power Institute at the University of Sydney.
To put it briefly, I asked him [Greenberg] to come. First of all, I thought that as at that time Greenberg was, as it were, the critical god of abstraction, that the best thing to do would be to ask him if he would come. And he did. I found him a charming man. Of course, he had his views and he wouldn’t move them an inch. The local boys who were so committed to abstraction in Sydney were delighted at his presence, but he wasn’t so keen to support them. I think he actually said, not in my presence, that he preferred the work of people like Boyd and others. I remember a hilarious case: I was hanging around one Sydney art gallery, a commercial gallery that had all these paintings up on its walls … Clem was going along, and he stops in front of [a painting by Pro Hart], and he says ‘That’s a very nice piece of painting there, isn’t it?’ Well!
For many, Smith’s decision to invite Greenberg to give the inaugural John Power Lecture seemed strangely incongruous. Smith had long been a champion of social realism, and in 1959 had shown his colours by authoring the fiercely anti-abstractionist Antipodean Manifesto. Despite this, in 1971, when Smith came to revive his seminal 1962 textbook Australian Painting, he added a generous and thorough appraisal of late-modernist abstraction in Australia. This contradiction reflects the seriousness with which Smith viewed his dual role as both scholar and advocate.
I’ve always been caught between history and criticism. I’m essentially a historian, and so I feel that it’s important to take a distant view of things. But every now and again I intervene on a moral or political issue. Not very often. I certainly was a polemicist when I did the Antipodean Manifesto, but what people still don’t recognise there, first of all, is that it has to be seen, not as a Sydney/Melbourne stoush. It was never that in my view. Mine was a political argument because at that time, America was exporting only abstract art, only their best abstract artists. People like Edward Hopper never got a look in. He wasn’t even particularly political. But they only did that, and that is what they were exporting here and all over the world. It was a government policy, and I felt that the artists – and they were all important artists, the figurative artists – needed some kind of defence. They were not very political people. But at any rate, having got that done, I felt that if I was going to write this other book I would have to take a historical view and say fairly what I thought of the quality of the work.
But if one writes a history of Australian art, you are confronted with the logical problem ‘is there such a thing as Australian art?’ When I began looking at the early colonial stuff, I was trying to search out for those little bits and pieces that one could find that were distinct from the overall British tradition. For instance, when John Glover says ‘In Australia you can see the distant horizon through the trees’, he can see something. It’s still dominated by his interest in … but it’s there. I’ve always been looking for some kind of thing that is local. But it’s local in a universal tradition. I mean, painting didn’t develop here as an independent art.
Bernard Smith dedicated his career to tracking these exchanges between the centre and the periphery, between Europe and the Antipodes. In his most important book, European Vision and the South Pacific (1960) Smith argued that it was the shock encounter of European artists with the new world of the South Pacific that ushered in the era of Romanticism in Europe. This was a radical thesis based on the principle that cultural influence did not run in one direction – from the centre to the periphery,the coloniser to the colonised; Europe to the South Pacific – but rather, that it was a matter of complex and shifting relationships. In its close attention to the representation of ‘exotic otherness’ and its effect on European consciousness, European Vision and the South Pacific preempted many of the critical issues of post-colonialism that would arise two decades later in celebrated publications such as Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978).
And yet, while European Vision and the South Pacific is often compared to Said’s famous treatise, Smith was highly critical of Said’s concept of Orientalism, arguing that it created a monolithic category that oversimplified the processes of cultural flow. Smith’s thinking was always attuned to such subtleties, and he had an ability to marshall the most extraordinary range of historical and visual materials to map the specifics of such moments of exchange. Driving this was the hard-won belief that the the distance of the Antipodes did not deny our right to speak, but rather, gave us a clarity to judge, to see things as they really are. In doing so, Bernard Smith not only defined Australian art history, but staked a place for the antipodes at the table of international culture.
 See Peter Beilharz, Imagining the Antipodes: Culture, Theory and the Visual in the Work of Bernard Smith, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997, pp.85-86.