Bernard Smith gave us Australian art. Before him, the subject was not part of our cultural discourse. We knew and could place the work of Michelangelo and Monet but not that of Eugene von Guérard, Tom Roberts or Grace Cossington Smith. In 1945 Smith’s Place, Taste and Tradition: A Study of Australian Art since 1788 was the first book to contextualise Euro-Australian art within European art movements. Based on a series of lectures he had given in Sydney in 1942 for the Teachers’ Federation Art Society and the Contemporary Art Society, it was republished in 1979 with little revision, and reprinted as recently as 1993. It remains an engaging Marxist period piece, of particular interest to art historians but still enjoyable for non-specialists.
Australian Painting 1788–1960 appeared in 1962, a splendid blossoming from those 1942 lectures. Smith was no longer a schoolteacher and occasional surrealist painter. He had spent ten years at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, interrupted by a research fellowship in London and followed by another at the Australian National University, which resulted in his timeless European Vision and the South Pacific (1960). Since 1955 he had been a lecturer in the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Melbourne. He knew exactly what Australia needed.