The Albatross Returns: Looking again at European Vision

Bernard Smith, European Vision and the South Pacific (Third Edition)
Melbourne University Press, 2022 350 pp.


Bernard Smith, European Vision and the South Pacific (Third Edition), Melbourne University Press, 2022 350 pp.

The argument of Bernard Smith’s European Vision and the South Pacific, originally published in 1960, is well known. It is stated first perhaps in Smith’s “Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner and Cook’s Second Voyage”, which appeared four years earlier in 1956. In that essay, Smith makes the claim that it was the stories William Wales, once the astronomer on Cook’s second voyage to the Pacific and later the master at the Mathematical School at Christ’s Hospital in Sussex, told his pupil Samuel Taylor Coleridge that led to Coleridge writing “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, arguably the foundational text of English Romanticism. And in European Vision Smith similarly argues that it was the encounter of European explorers with the flora, fauna and Indigenous peoples of the South Pacific that contested the reigning Neo-Classical order. Explorers sailed out to the Pacific with a God-given unchanging order of being in which everything had its place, and were confronted with plants that could not be classified, animals that were neither reptiles nor mammals and humans who were savages. They were forced into a new conception of the world in which it is nature, not God, that rules and nothing is eternal and unchanging.

For Smith it marks the victory of science over theology and even art. The real heroes of his narrative are not the explorers or colonisers, but the topographers and draughtsmen on the various voyages, both those officially sent and those artists who renounced their creative ambitions in light of their responsibility to produce recognisable images. This is Smith’s glowing description of William Hodges’ Cape of Good Hope (1772): ‘He has sought to render, not a visual transcript of certain conditions of light and air as seen in a moment of time (in the impressionist manner), but a faithful and naturalist account of the typical weather conditions during the expedition’s stay at the Cape’.[1] Or later, when Australia is “settled”, Smith will praise John Lewin for his depiction of the mountains west of Sydney: ‘In the landscapes which he painted upon Macquarie’s Progress, he dispensed with the stereotyped foreground motifs common to early colonial views and with the contrivances of picturesque composition’(193). And altogether the book—it is ironic that it is an art historian saying this—traces the rise not only of the empirical and observed but also the associated conception of art not as any exercise of taste or aesthetics but as objective description and typological classification. As Smith writes in his final chapter “The Triumph of Science, 1820-1850”: ‘So pervasive was the influence of science upon illustration and landscape-painting during the period that it might be said with some truth that already by 1859 the painter of leaves had painted the world’(286).

This is the “revenge” of Australia: settled only as a penal colony and understood to lie far distant from the rest of the world, it profoundly changed the way Europe saw itself, forcing it to view itself through other eyes. It is why Smith is seen as an inaugural—perhaps the inaugural—postcolonial theorist. But more than most other such theorists, Smith argues not merely for the inseparability of empires from their colonies, but for the fact that colonies make colonies of their empires. It is a powerful narrative, a pleasing narrative, which is doubtless why it has lasted so long as an interpretation of the book. It may even be the way that Smith himself intended the book to be read. But it is too simple a narrative, and it is arguable that after European Vision Smith sought to qualify it. Certainly, the appearance of this third edition allows us to read the book in light of what has come after it, and by what has been influenced by it. It is not so much to overturn it as to complexify it, deepen it, bring it up to date. Today we can read European Vision as not just postmodern but also as “Indigenous” in its arguments and attitudes. It is an argument not just for a distinctive Australian art but also for the impossibility of any such art.

Let us begin by making a detour through what we might call “Australian” postmodernism. (This might correspond to the second edition of European Vision, which appeared in 1984.) Paul Foss’ “Theatrum Nondum Cognitorum”, originally delivered as a lecture in 1981, is a brilliant continuation and extension of European Vision, which he cites. Foss begins by outlining a brief history of the European imagining of Australia, not merely over centuries as in Smith but over millennia since the thought of Plato and Pythagoras and the maps of Mercator. Foss’ point is that, before Australia is “discovered” by Europeans, it is a pure projection of Europe, a place in which it saw itself reflected. But then, when Australia is finally “discovered”, the tables are turned and it is the world that is seen from Australia. In now prophetic words—recall that the so-called “War on Terror” of the 1990s was largely conducted from them—Foss says of those American military bases in “remote” Australia: ‘North-West Cape, Pine Gap, Nurrungar, Omega: with these geo-strategy reaches its zenith and the antipodal image its revenge at the same moment. It is no longer we who act as the balance or sponge for the artefacts of a European civilization. Everything is sucked into the void to be re-emitted back through the stratosphere to help map the territories of the rest of the globe’.[2]

Dr. Christian Thompson AOMuseum of Others (Othering the Explorer, James Cook), 2016. C-type print on metallic paper
120 x 120 cm, edition of 6 +2AP. Copyright the artist, courtesy of Michael Reid.

The following year the editor of Art & Text magazine, Paul Taylor, who was at Foss’ talk, curated Popism at the National Gallery of Victoria. In the exhibition catalogue, Taylor proposed that, if Australian art has always been regarded as derivative, second-hand, provincial, a mere delayed imitation of that made elsewhere, with the rise of postmodernism Australian art can now be seen as itself postmodern, and postmodern before its time. In effect, it is not Australia that imitates the world’s art, but the world that now imitates Australia’s. As Taylor later wrote in an essay, “Popism – The Art of White Aborigines”, quoting the Surrealist Alfred Jarry: ‘Nowhere is everywhere and first of all in the country where we happen to be’.[3] Finally, the artist Imants Tillers, who was in Taylor’s show, would hypothesise in his essay “Locality Fails” a certain “failure of locality” by which we can read the nineteenth-century Swiss Symbolist Arnold Böcklin’s The Island of the Dead of 1880 as  the delayed but unconscious response to the massacre of Tasmanian Aborigines that occurred some 50 years before on the other side of the world: ‘Thus to take an almost preposterous example, Böcklin’s The Island of the Dead, completed in 1880 in Munich, might be the direct (though slightly delayed) result of the successful extermination [sic] of the Tasmanian Aborigines by the white settlers’.[4]

What is notable about this antipodal revenge? And what does it tell us about Smith? We might say that it occurs not as the refusal of the image, as in Smith, but only in and through the image. It is only insofar as the image is projected upon Australia that Australia is projected upon the world. And this Australia is not some actual place to speak of against the European image, but a kind of non-place from where to speak against all images. It is not a matter of positing some empirical truth against the falsity of the image, but a paradoxical and self-contradictory thinking against the image within the image itself. And it is this idea that now becomes available to us as a possible reading of Smith. For if we go back to European Vision and particularly the work that comes after it, we can see that, against generations of readers and perhaps even Smith himself, there is not quite the same triumph of science as before, not such a strict distinction between Australia and the image. This qualification is certainly to be seen in the writings that come after European Vision. For example, in the 1979 essay “Art as Information”, Smith remarks that the observations of travellers could not be conveyed ‘but within some kind of convention’.[5] In the 1987 essay “Style, Information and Image in the Art of Cook’s Voyages”, Smith will write: ‘It is sometimes forgotten that the presence of a dominant style or convention, whether “orientalist”, classicist or mannerist, does not preclude the conveyance of ethnographic information’(184). And if we go back to the chapter “The Triumph of Science” in European Vision, we can even find Smith admitting ‘how narrow the gap between art and science was at this time’, ‘how quickly the interest of science could be transformed into the enthusiasms of art’ and ‘how the “picturesque” had taken unto itself so much of the documentary discipline of science’ (281).

To what cultural moment might we see this reading of Smith belonging? If the second edition of 1984 aligned with postmodernism, this third edition, with its Introduction by Smith’s biographer Sheridan Palmer and Trawulwuy art historian Greg Lehman, might be said to correspond to a new Indigenous reading of Australia. It is a reading that European Vision at once opens up and must respond to if it wants to live on. What is problematic about the usual reading of European Vision? Certainly, Smith traces there the passage from the Neoclassicism of, say, John Hawkesworth’s account of Tierra del Fuegians to the Romanticism of naturalists Johann Reinhold and his son George Forster’s descriptions of Tahitians as though proof of an increasing scientificity and overcoming of European preconceptions. But the real issue is not just the obviously racist stereotypes of even “Romantic” depictions, but the fact that even supposedly empirical truth is inseparable from underlying cultural assumptions. But where to think this from? Let us consider at this point two works by contemporary Indigenous artists. The first is Brook Andrew’s Gun-metal Grey (2007), in which he reproduces images of Indigenous people from English and Australian colonial archives on metallic reflective foil so that the spectator at first sees their own reflection and then behind or through this the Indigenous figure looking on. The second is Christian Thompson’s Othering the Explorer: James Cook (2016), in which the artist holds up a cardboard portrait of Cook through which his own eyes stare, at once allowing and interrupting our identification with the great coloniser.

The point in both works is that the “Indigenous” is a certain self-reflection by the viewer, but is also what is excluded to allow this reflection. The Indigenous is an image, but also that place from where to think that the Indigenous is an image. And this is the way that European Vision can now be read: not as the assertion of the triumph of science in which the image of the Indigenous is finally empirically confirmed, but the admission that the inventive, illustrative and aesthetic always persists. If there is a “science” in European Vision – like the “Australian” in postmodernism and the “Indigenous” in Andrew and Thompson – it is the thinking of the inseparability of art and science. Like all great books, European Vision first of all argues with itself. Both readings of the book we have proposed are possible, both are in disagreement with the other and neither is possible without the other. We would therefore criticise the book only to repeat what the book already says about itself. Like that albatross flying in over the horizon to guide the sailors through the icebergs in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, we might attempt to kill it only to tell its story forever. Put simply, Smith’s story is immortal.


  1. ^ Bernard Smith, European Vision and the South Pacific, third edition, (Melbourne University Press: 2022), 44. All further page references in brackets in the main text. 
  2. ^ Paul Foss, ‘Theatrum Nondum Cognitorum’, in Peter Botsman, Chris Burns and Peter Hutchings (eds), The Foreign Bodies Papers, (Sydney: Local Consumption Publications, 1981), 34-5. 
  3. ^ Paul Taylor, ‘Popism – The Art of White Aborigines’, On the Beach 1 (1982): 30.
  4. ^ Imants Tillers, ‘Locality Fails’, Art & Text 6 (Winter 1982): 56. 
  5. ^  Bernard Smith, ‘Art as Information’, in Imagining the Pacific: In the Wake of Cook’s Voyages, (Melbourne University Press: 1992), 61. All further page references to Imagining the Pacific in brackets in the main text. 

Rex Butler teaches Art History in the Faculty of Art Design and Architecture at Monash University. His latest book (with A.D.S. Donaldson) is UnAustralian Art: Ten Essays on Transnational Art History (Power Publishing, 2023).