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Hegel’s Owl by Sheridan Palmer
Power Publications, 2016.
ISBN 9780994306425
Phillip Hall reviews

Hegel’s Owl

by Sheridan Palmer

I have long loved the writing of Bernard Smith for his passionate and rigorous application of Marxist theory to a reading of art history and to the story of European colonialism in the South Pacific. For such landmark endeavours, Bernard Smith will always be remembered as a most significant public intellectual. And Sheridan Palmer’s new biography, Hegel’s Owl, is an elegant and powerful tribute to this aspect of Smith’s life. In describing the formation and expression of Smith’s ideas, Palmer makes a remarkable contribution to Australian intellectual history.

Palmer begins by recounting Smith’s awkward beginnings (illegitimate birth and foster care), which contributed to Smith’s conviction of being an “outsider”, and to his immersion into evangelical Christianity. From the time Smith could read he memorised two chapters from his illustrated Bible every night:

From this he forged his notion of the genesis of human-kind, a world predicated upon good and evil, cataclysmic tensions, exiles, exotic cultures and fabled histories … . The Bible was the panoramic backdrop against which his sense of history was formed [and] out of the Bible he received a feeling of drama at an extended sweep … . (18-19).

At the age of fifteen, however, Smith discovered Darwin and abandoned Christianity as “preposterous nonsense” (19). As a young adult Smith joined the Left Book Club and Australian Communist Party and began the process of “reading himself into politics” (37): Marx, Engels, Hegel, William Morris, Jack Lindsay, Vere Gordon Childe and the Fabians (Beatrice and Sidney Webb). Smith knew that “Marxism was not dogma, but a necessary guide to action for the working class in their struggle for power” (77). And the place of the artist was in that struggle:

Marx agued that the abstract qualities of bourgeois romanticism and individuality be replaced with a communal truth in which “freedom and material life must be united around a higher principle”, and importantly, Marx chose “Hegel’s celebration of the guiding spirit of history into a materialist concern with the economic bases of life and culture”. Bernard later said that Marxism gave him “a dislike for any kind of elitist attitude to a subject”. This was in keeping with his working-class origins and helps explain why he became attracted to the art of social realism (40).

For a brief period, however, Smith judged Surrealism to be the best model for the artist as revolutionary:

Surrealism’s “tandem components of words and images”, its oppositional structures of individualism and collectivism, and its subversive and revelatory views of life were intended to destabilise capitalism and salvage humanity from imperialist fascism (47).

But soon Smith began to question Surrealism:

He ultimately decided that it was a parody of what was going on … . His rejection of surrealism and his realisation that it was more important to be part of society rather than a solitary, subjective artist, was a pivotal moment and one that was instrumental in renewing his belief in the politicisation of art as a method of social reform (48).

Paraphrasing Marx, Smith would write, “Surrealists should remember that it is not the consciousness of men which determines their social being but their social being which determines their consciousness” (61). Judging it time to adopt a new generation of intellectuals, poets and artists, Smith “favoured a more positive approach and advocated social realism” (61).

Amidst the international crisis represented by the rise of fascism, and the outbreak of the Second World War, Smith continued to wrestle with the role of the artist:

If art were to be potent in times of upheaval it had to ask and answer questions of political and social urgency; it was Goya, Bernard argued, “who went to the charnel-pits outside Madrid to record the truth of the Napoleonic invasion”; it was Courbet the revolutionist who made the first departure from romanticism and painted the realism of nature and life … . Like iconoclasts they were prepared to strip away the veil of bourgeois capitalism, mock imperial or elitist values and expose the struggle of the working class (78).

Palmer shows how Smith emerged, between 1938 and 1948, from a primary school teacher into one of “Australia’s most brilliant young art historians and cultural critics” (62). In June 1948 Smith was awarded a British Council scholarship to study at the Courtauld Institute of Art. This represented a major turning point in Smith’s life. Palmer argues that it “crystallised [Smith’s] scholarly development and gave him the distance that he came to see as critical to his understanding of Australia” (99). It was also the beginning of Smith’s landmark work on the art of James Cook’s voyages that became so fundamental to his analysis of European imperialism in the South Pacific and to his notion of the “Antipodes”.

Palmer argues that the “complexity and composite vision” of Smith's European Vision and the South Pacific was a “watershed in the study of geopolitical imperialism and the Pacific, and is why many … historians recognise this as Bernard’s magnum opus” (163). This book won Smith numerous awards. Its thesis predated Edward Said’s highly acclaimed Orientalism by a decade and led Said to acknowledge Smith’s work as “perhaps the most extended analysis of the practice available” (163). As Palmer shows:

Bernard’s [thesis] was a sophisticated pioneering study on imperial colonisation and cultural convergence between a dominant power and the peripheral cultures of the Pacific region. It showcased his formidable grasp of historical material and interdisciplinary methods …  . Formed around the double dialogues of art and science, its structure and narrative interweaved between historical events, ideas and images, and was a major evaluation of recovered criticism, literature, empirical observation, visual perception and Enlightenment values. It was also an exceptional work on territorialism, possession and ownership as seen through the dramatic acquisition of the exotic as a potential commodity.

Palmer also explains how Smith’s thesis reveals an aspect of Romanticism’s genesis:

Just as the Orient or the East had undermined the authority of classical Greece and Rome at a time when the neoclassical was being discovered and excavated … so the exploration of the South Pacific profoundly affected European aesthetics and ideas. The artistic descriptions of unknown lands and strange people had created new systems of perception and visual devices from which a transformative arts program developed (122).

Smith always “centred his scholarship around the dynamic tension of European hegemony and imperialism” (309) and his “concepts of antipodality, cultural convergence and the use of interdisciplinary narratives on the colonial [and] postcolonial … have retained a crucial currency in the history of ideas” (325). Explaining the formation of these ideas and scholarship, and accounting for their bearing, is the strength of this biography. Unfortunately, Palmer is not always quite so successful, or thorough, in explaining aspects of Smith’s personal story.

Palmer notes that Smith was, throughout his married life, a “womaniser” (263) and that he had a “predatory need for women” (300) even while he depended on Kate (his partner) to establish the domestic routines that facilitated his life of research (263). But almost twenty years after Drusilla Modjeska’s landmark Stravinsky’s Lunch (which exposes how the male ego so often sacrifices family and domestic routine for work) it seems incredible that a male biographer would allow such an arrangement to go unquestioned. And his casual defence of Smith’s unfaithfulness is implausible. Palmer suggests that this was the result of time spent in foster care when the “sense of continual change and exchange between [multiple female carers] would have … set a pretext or expectation of his needs being satisfied by not one, but multiple women” (14). When Smith served as director of the Power Institute of Fine Arts his leadership style was described as “authoritarian” (243-244) and in retirement he reflected on this failure of leadership as “one of his greatest regrets” (329). These values of male privilege and power require interrogation from a contemporary biographer.

While this biography does not make a contribution to a historiography of gender it is a vividly evoked intellectual history of a pioneering Australian multidisciplinary scholar and advocate for a local fine arts and literary culture. Moreover, the book is a superbly produced cultural artefact. It is generously illustrated with a section of colour plates and with black-and-white images interspersed throughout the text. For anyone interested in a history of ideas this biography is wonderfully appealing.

Sheridan Palmer, Hegel’s Owl: The Life of Bernard Smith (Sydney: Power Publications, 2016) ISBN: 9780994306425

Published: September 2023
Phillip Hall

lives in Melbourne’s Sunshine (western suburbs) where he works as a poet and reviewer for such publications as Cordite and Plumwood Mountain. He is a very passionate member of the Western Bulldogs Football Club. He also continues, through his writing, to honour First Nations in the Northern Territory’s Gulf of Carpentaria where he has family and friends.

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