# 42351

SMITH, Bernard (1916 - 2011)

A pavane for another time

Original price was: $59.95.Current price is: $10.00. AUD

Melbourne : Macmillan Art Publishing, 2002. Octavo, boards in dustjacket, pp. 464, illustrated. Long out of print, this is a scarce as-new copy.

Bernard Smith’s autobiographical account of life in the 1940s, including Smith’s detailed interactions with Australian painters. Includes portraits of James Gleeson, Leonard French, Inge King, Noel Counihan, Tony Tuckson etc.

John McDonald reviewed Smith’s autobiography in 2002:


By Bernard Smith
Macmillan, 464pp, $59.95

Not to go back, is somewhat to advance
And men must walk at least before they dance.- Alexander Pope, Imitations of Horace

A pavane is a slow, stately dance of medieval origins. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the eras of Ronsard and Lully, it was associated with courtship. The man and woman performed a series of ritualistic passes, their proud, strutting attitude giving the dance its name – “pavone” means “peacock” in Italian. Yet somehow, in the modern age, the pavane took on an elegiac aspect, as in Ravel’s Pavane pour une Infante Defunte (Pavane for a Dead Infanta) of 1899. The strutting peacock became an image of human vanity, a rigid parody of the ecstatic rhythms of modern dance – a dance of death.

Ravel is said to have chosen his title purely for its euphonious qualities, and Bernard Smith (b.1916) may have followed the same path in titling a second volume of memoirs A Pavane for Another Time. Nevertheless, it makes one think of the pavane as an old man’s dance: a slow and steady procession that harks back to an earlier age. It is also the dance for a “plodder”, as Smith has described himself on more than one occasion. In the course of his long career as an art historian Smith has watched writers such as Robert Hughes and Simon Schama play the peacock, while drawing his own distinctions between scholarship and showbiz.

Smith reminds us that scholarship sets its own pace, sometimes a walking pace. A catalogue of The Art of Captain Cook’s Voyages begun in the 1940s would take almost 50 years to reach completion. In the meantime, Smith completed a string of important books, virtually inventing the discipline of Australian art history. He has earned his “pavane”, and the right to reflect on his own past.

Of all Smith’s publications, the first volume of his memoirs, The Boy Adeodatus (1984), is his most lyrical. In that book he wrote about himself in the third person, as though the young Bernard was a subject to be studied from a distance, with some of the practiced objectivity of the historian or novelist. A Pavane for Another Time is a more personal affair, and only a writer as venerable and respected as Smith might expect to get some of its self-indulgences past a mainstream publisher. The book is both an intellectual biography and a tribute to his first wife, Kate Challis (1915-89). Much of the story is told through extracts from letters and diaries that include a mass of intimate, domestic detail. He confesses his infidelities, his guilt and misgivings, and displays some regret for his self-absorption. Yet ultimately he wears his sins lightly, as though he believes they were beyond his control.

As an epigraph, Smith quotes King Edward I of England, from the year 1290: “My harp is tuned to mourning.” This provides a key to the strange, meandering nature of some chapters, which contain the kind of European travel stories that innumerable Australians – this reviewer included – have recorded in their diaries and letters. But while these stories are interesting for the writer, since they re-ignite a host of vivid memories, they may seem humdrum to others. Smith’s accounts take on a slightly different aspect if we consider them as an elaborate exercise in mourning. From this perspective, the writer looks back on a vanished world; on friends and acquaintances long dead. Every little detail becomes exaggeratedly precious because it has been rescued from oblivion and preserved in these pages like a rare exhibit in a museum. We see Smith as both the curator of his own life’s experiences, and the life he shared with Challis.

While much of Smith’s travelogue might not be especially gripping or insightful, the reader is sustained by the fluency of his prose. The more valuable passages are his descriptions of the early art lectures given under the auspices of the NSW Teachers Federation, and his insider’s account of the Australian Communist Party, which exerted a tremendous appeal during and after World War II. Equally good are Smith’s tales of the “antediluvian” atmosphere of the National Art Gallery of NSW – as it was then called – and Hal Missingham’s battles with the trustees over Smith’s plans for sending exhibitions to country regions.

When Smith leaves the gallery he travels to London to attend the Courtauld Institute, and describes his encounters with famous scholars such as Anthony Blunt, Ernst Gombrich, Rudolf Wittkower, John Summerson and Leopold Ettlinger. The reader who anticipates some acute, private insights into the famous works of art and architecture that Smith encounters will be disappointed. He is cursory in his discussions of these matters, often doing nothing more than ticking them off a list.

The most baffling passage is when he makes a special detour to Colmar to see Grunewald’s extraordinary Isenheim Altarpiece, but says nothing about the work. Instead, his thoughts dwell on his own “unknown masterpiece”, The Advance of Lot and his Brethren – a painting he completed in 1940, before he gave up the brush for the historian’s pen. “It is,” he writes, “in my own opinion, the most important expressionist work painted in Australia at that time.”

Given the paucity of expressionist works being painted in Australia in 1940, this may not seem such a large claim, but more celebrated pictures by artists such as Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker were on the way, not to mention paintings by Bergner and Vassilieff. In part, it comes down to how one defines “expressionism” as distinct from styles such as social realism or surrealism, with which it had many points of contact. Another, more important point is that the painting he is so proud of was in storage for at least 30 years, and exerted no influence on the local art scene. While it has an undeniable historical interest, its aesthetic merit remains problematic.

Nor is it up to Smith, if only as a point of etiquette, to pronounce judgement on the importance of his own work. With this in mind, it is interesting to read his slightly wistful assessments of the work of his old friends, the social-realist painters Noel Counihan and Roy Dalgarno. In 1950, after visiting Dalgarno in Paris, Smith confides, in a letter to Challis: “His work, like Noel’s, hasn’t really advanced very much in the last two years.”

Smith would honour his friendship with Counihan with a 500-page biography published in 1993, but 40 years previously we see that he already nurtured doubts about the achievements of the social realists. In explaining why he tended to champion this work in his early writings, in preference to the art of Boyd, Nolan and Tucker, Smith admits: “I have always found old positions and old loyalties difficult to abandon, even after disillusion sets in.”

In this book, he applies that principle to his own early life, showing a dogged loyalty to the intense, youthful idealist taking his first steps in academic life. If he seems at times a little too indulgent with this young man, that is surely one of the privileges of age.

John McDonald is an art critic and the director of newcontemporaries gallery.