Gayle and I, bare and exposed
Between the 1940s and 1960s Bernard Smith published three books that established paradigms for the interpretation of Australian art, albeit in European art historical terms. These shaped the emerging discipline of Australian art history onto a trajectory that would not be shaken for another two decades, a direction that continued in the 1980s' and then 1990s' emphasis on the postmodernist strategy of appropriation.
In the first, Place, Taste, Tradition Smith argued that vision had a history in that the English colonists saw the Australian landscape with English eyes and they endowed that landscape with the formal qualities of landscapes to which they were aesthetically accustomed in England. The flora, fauna, landscape and indigenous people were all It was the other. constructed as exotic, repugnant and grotesque. It was the other, but also an imaginary fantasia full of wonders and monsters. Smith's claim was that art and identity result from the negotiations of traditions and locations, and not of the soil.
Smith argued that the way to secure recognition in Britain and Europe of Australian art is to demonstrate that its strength and vitality could revitalise the jaded art that was being produced and was under threat from American abstract expressionism.
Smith's Australian Painting, 1788-1960 is about a national school of Australian art developing under the cultural influence radiating from the centre. It describes the process of forging a distinctive and unique culture in Australian painting up to the 1960s. Smith argued that American culture threatened any emerging Australian distinctiveness, and American abstraction threatened to overwhelm the weakened but revered European artistic tradition of humanist art based on the depiction of the human figure.
The process of establishing an independent cultural identity in the face of both traditional and newly powerful influences was obviously crucial. The first cultural task was to record a body of work separate from that of the colonising centre, to compile a national history that consequently posited semi-autonomous national cultural lineages. When he supported Australian art, he did so from the critical perspective of the British and European art history establishment.
Smith argued that the Antipodeans (eg.,Charles Blackman, Arthur Boyd, David Boyd, John Perceval, Sidney Nolan, Russell Drysdale, Albert Tucker) were the new nationalist school that offered fresh formal insights and new ideas that had the potential to rescue Britain's modernist tradition of figuration from the advance of American abstract expressionism. It is ironic that Britain itself had long been an artistic backwater, and was itself now a provincial cultural scene relative to New York.
If an 'Australian' art did not happen in isolation but came out of an exchange between 'European vision' and 'Antipodean experience', can this also be the case for photography in Australia in the 21st century? Or is that way of thinking---the idea of a peripheral vision---an historical relic of now use to contemporary photographers in Australia; a peripheral vision that combines European and American vision and technologies in different ways with the peculiarities of place.