European Vision and the South Pacific Third Edition

| Sheridan Palmer & Ian McLean

European Vision and the South Pacific Third Edition

European Vision And The South Pacific Third Edition | Sheridan Palmer & Ian McLean

To celebrate the launch of the Third Edition of Bernard Smiths European Vision and the South Pacific, art historian Ian McLean and editor Sheridan Palmer reflect on the legacy and ongoing importance of Smiths pioneering book. Jointly published in October 2022 by Miegunyah Press and Art + Australia, European Vision and the South Pacific republication features a new introduction by Sheridan Palmer and Greg Lehman, which introduces a younger generation to one of Australias most important art historical publications.

As Palmer and McLean highlight below, Smiths book originally published in 1960 preempted post-colonialism by mapping the interconnections and crossing of cultural boundaries between Europe and the Pacific. 

Launching Bernard Smiths European Vision | Ian McLean

Launching Bernard Smiths European Vision

Launching Bernard Smiths European Vision

Bernard Smiths polemical and groundbreaking Boyer lectures in 1980, 42 years ago, issued a wake-up call to the Australian nation and especially its artworld. There was a moral imperative, he said, for the Australian nation to open what he called ‘the locked cupboard of our history’, calling it the ‘historical drama’ of our times. It’s fair to say that his journey towards this position began with this book, European Vision and the South Pacific.

He began thinking about it immediately after World War Two, in the wake of his book written during that war, Place, Taste and Tradition (1945), which against the reigning paradigm of the time, proposed that Australian art was born from colonial or empire art not its rejection. Its Bernard’s single greatest insight. To prove it, he wrote European Vision (1950) with a scholarly acumen beyond reproach. European art museums are only just catching up with the case it makes for Europe’s national art histories originating in colonialism.

This scholarly acumen along with what he discovered has made European Vision his greatest book and why a third edition is being published now some seventy years after he first sketched out an argument that opened the door to what we in the academy call postcolonial critique. Indeed, it’s become commonplace to compare it to Edward Said’s acclaimed Orientalism (1978), of which it was some twenty years in advance. More importantly, the agency it gives to the Pacific in revolutionising European knowledge systems was a postcolonial-type revision of Orientalism before the fact.

The weakness of European Vision is that this agency doesn’t go far enough, being limited to the European reception of the Pacific. Nevertheless, it triggered a greater appreciation of the transcultural exchange between Europeans and indigenous people of the regions by later scholars evident in the new introduction of this third edition, in which the Indigenous art historian Greg Lehmann acknowledges the profound influence of European Vision.

The scholarly rigour and tone of European Vision and its supplements—the volumes he produced in the 1980s on the art of Cook’s voyages and the first British penal colony in Australia—sit uncomfortably with Bernard’s natural gait, which was as a polemicist. He was an activist, a communist no less, in which his scholar’s gown was a poor disguise.

This third edition of European Vision owes a great debt to Sheridan Palmer who co-authored, with Greg Lehmann, the new introduction. Thanks to her finely crafted biography of Bernard Hegel’s Owl: The Life of Bernard Smith (2018), we know more than we need to about Bernard—though as she pointed out, quoting Luke Slattery, Bernard was ‘an unbridled revealer’ with ‘a mania for self-disclosure’. Slattery was referring to Carmel O’Connnor’s large Archibald portrait of the 86-year-old Bernard in the dress of the Barberini Faun, legs wide open, genitals planted in the centre of the painting. Throwing his academic gown aside to reveal all, Bernard cast himself as Dionysius triumphantly stamping on three academic tomes with his left foot, of course. On the wall behind hangs a landscape painting.

One of several jokes in this very naked nude is its classical idealisation, as if the wiry Bernard regularly pumped iron and had just returned from a hard work out in the gym. Wedded to the cause of realism and the demystification of ideology, Bernard never lost sight of the ironic structure of Hegel’s dialectic, which warns us that even at its most naked, the empirical drive of realism is embroiled in the ideological dress of nudity. It is a clue to what lies beneath the scholarly quest of European Vision to prove empiricism’s revolutionary credentials.

Sheridan shrewdly locates the drive of Bernard’s intellectual questing in the emotional homelessness stemming from being a foster child with his bastard ancestry vaguely apparent from fleeting impressions of his mother and father. Bernard, she argues, was obsessed with the question of origins and home because this is what he lacked. It gave Bernard an insight into the Australian settler psyche.

The impact of childhood experiences on one’s worldview is a truism of modern psychology, but animist knowledge systems give priority to the place of one’s conception, a place to which one must also return. We know from Bernard’s autobiographies that this was the distant tropical city of Far North Queensland, Cairns, where his parents had worked as the gardener and maid in a well-to-do household. But when eighteen-years-old Bernard returned to visit his mother and step siblings, he was shocked by the rude existence and intellectual deprivation of their lives. Steeped in Darwin and soon Marx and Freud, this up-and-coming intellectual quickly retreated back to his life of the mind, making his home in the adopted cultural capitals of Sydney and Melbourne.

Darwin, Marx and Freud each wrote origin stories. European Vision is essentially an origin story that takes its inspiration from Darwin’s discovery of evolution in the Pacific, where everything seemed so radically different, so antipodal to existing European cosmology. At a deeper psychic level, it is a second more successful return to his conception site in exotic climes far from his digs in the southern capitals. Here he discovered a new genre, empire art, which he divided into two parts. One was produced according to the empirical precepts of the sciences under the auspices of the Royal Society. The other was found in the formalism and idealism taught in the Royal Academy that promoted the ideological values of British Imperialism from which Australian art, he argued, had to escape. His tracing of the demise of the academic classical tradition and the rise of modernism and Australian art from the same dialectic that echoes in his uncanny antipodean consciousness in search of a home, a national tradition. If in Australian Painting Smith argued, to quote, that ‘Australian artists have constantly returned to refresh themselves from the deep fountains of European culture and civilisation’, European Vision shows that colonialism rearticulated these fountains with water drawn from the deep fountains of the Pacific.

Why Publish A Third Edition? | Sheridan Palmer
 + Prospero’s Island South West Valerie Sparks, 2016. Commissioned by Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery for Tempest, Dark MOFO 2016 With the support of the Australia Council.

Why Publish a Third Edition?

Why Publish a Third Edition?

History invites constant revision, and Bernard Smith’s European Vision and the South Pacific is both a meta-narrative and a remarkable revision of eighteenth and nineteenth century European exploration and colonisation. This ‘path-breaking’ book maps the micro and macro impact of European and British imperialism, the discoveries, the contact and conduct associated with colonisation and the irreversible consequences and transformations wrought by Empire in its quest for power, wealth, and global expansionism.

Based on maps, documents, literature and works of art held mostly in British archives, but also in European, New Zealand and Australian institutions, Smith synthesised and contextualised an astounding amount of material, initially over a two-year period between 1949 and 1951, which brought together an interdisciplinary programme that united text, image, art, science and Enlightenment values. Apart from the extraordinary resilience of these eighteenth century British and European maritime explorers or those on the first Fleet as they sailed into the unknown waters of the South Pacific, the book also illuminates the gaze of Empire in its exchanges with indigenous peoples.

 + Prospero’s Island South West Valerie Sparks, 2016. Commissioned by Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery for Tempest, Dark MOFO 2016 With the support of the Australia Council.

In 1949, while on a British Council scholarship Bernard Smith was also commissioned by the Hakluyt Society in London to catalogue all the known works made by artists on Captain James Cook’s three voyages. Many of these drawings and paintings had been kept hidden in archives and rarely seen. They reveal the empirical eye of artists as they documented nature, strange climatic phenomena, cultural rites and artefacts, extraordinary animals and botanical specimens, with works made directly on the spot or on the high seas. These works of art act as silent witness or memory cards, and are testimony of contact, impact as well as the collecting mania that filled our museums like ‘ghosts of the dead’.1 The amassing of such ethnographic and anthropological specimens was another form of possession and power. But Smith also records the moral imperatives and insatiable appetites of the British and Europeans for what was being brought back from these voyages; the spectacle, the romantic perceptions and caricaturing of the exotic other, at first as a heroic, classicising depiction of the noble savage then, under Christianising enterprises by evangelist Missionaries, as ignoble paganistic savages. Smith’s awareness of the use of manipulative codes of representation during the era of colonial expansion is understated but pervasive.

Over the course of a decade as Bernard Smith uncovered more material evidence, he was also opening a panoramic vision of colonial crimes. His book therefore is a platform on which postcolonial studies and the discourse of decolonisation has been established, and from which many scholars, curators, artists and students have and continue to use as a reference and revisional tool.

Considering the vast geographic, literary, aesthetic and political terrain of the long eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, it becomes evident when reading this remarkable book that Smith’s analytical interpretation was through a lens of an antipodean outsider. When Smith analysed the accounts of contact, exchange, possession or violence, he was conscious of the ‘unequal exchange’.

Recently Stan Grant wrote, ‘This past week I have been reminded of what it is to come from the other side of history. History itself that is written as a hymn to whiteness.’2

He may have been born into the white side of history, but his birthright was one of a marginalised social position that gave him a unique perspective. Born illegitimate in 1916 and raised as a state ward, he grew up as a socially obscured child—the ‘other’ and outsider was a familiar shadow and condition that accompanied him throughout his life. Growing up in a ‘farming out house during the great depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s Bernard Smith experienced inequality, injustice and subordination and was acutely aware of power relations. While he rose to become an eminent Australian art historian, his development and scholarly work was tempered by his formative experiences and weighted towards the outsider. Arriving in London in 1948, Smith intended to study early British and European perceptions of Australia and how these nations and their ideas shaped our colonial development. Interestingly and fortuitously Smith was mentored by European refugee scholars at the Warburg Institute, outsiders who had escaped Nazis Germany and found sanctuary in London. These historians guided Smith into a deep and rich interdisciplinary field of history in which Smith found ways of universalising and envisaging history as both contingency and convergence.

Smith’s rule of thumb was always about opening the dialogue not closing it down, and as he peeled back the layers of empire, colonisation and contact, he unfolded new ways of envisaging the previously unmapped world through art and ideas. As such, European Vision and the South Pacific is a major foundational work that reveals both a window into Empire and Enlightenment values, as well as to the beauty of lands, cultures and peoples of the South Pacific before European cross-cultural contamination. But Smith also shows us through works of art some of the first moments of contact, and as Fredric Jameson recently wrote ‘the moment of imperialism’ begins when ‘This "first contact", is met ‘with the enigmatic silence of otherness’.3

Why a third edition, you ask?  Apart from European Vision and the South Pacific being regarded as a major Australian classic, and one of the first significant books on colonialism, colonisation and it also casts an uncanny relation to current global events. We can compare European imperialism of the mid 1700s with the new imperialism of today, indeed, in this edition’s new Introduction we state, ‘in today’s world, the complexities of territorialisation are as fraught and disputed as they were in the Georgian age of Empire, when subjugation, rejection and erasure of the Other were as tragic as the current treatment of displaced, stateless refugees and the disavowal of First Nations’ human rights’. Understanding the agencies that thrust vectors together is paramount in how we negotiate the present and future.

Today we are amidst a resounding, critical revision concerning the ‘colonial crime’ and the painful mourning of atrocities committed on First Nations people and those of other Pacific Islands. Smith’s book is prelude and overture and offers evidential markers to the current vigorous conversations and the recalibration about what began in 1768.  While his 1960 publication of European Vision and the South Pacific didn’t receive the merit it deserved at the time, the second, revised edition, published in 1984 by Yale and Oxford University Presses, was heralded as a brilliant text that opened the floodgates for future scholars, curators and artists on postcolonialism. The book became a significant platform that many have used and continue to use, and why this Third Edition is important in reintroducing Smith’s polemics and opening new discursive corridors to reveal the other side of history.

Why Publish a Third Edition was originally presented at the 2022 Art Association of Australia and New Zealand Conference


1. See Toby Juliff, ‘Silent Witness: Doris Salcedo and Blanchot’, in Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, 2021, Vol. 21, no.2, pp. 201-2

2. Stan Grant, ABC online 18.9.2022

3. Fredric Jameson, ‘Time and the Sea’, LRB, 16 April, 2020, p. 29

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