Atheist scholar wanted a Catholic funeral

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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.

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. 

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.

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. 

FULL OBIT: Father of art history had far-reaching influence (Sydney Morning Herald)

LINKS:

Bernard Smith (Australian Biography)

Bernard Smith and the Formalesque (Quadrant)

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