“True generosity to the future lies in giving everything to the present,” wrote Albert Camus.
For more than a decade, all artworks accepted into the Art Gallery of South Australia’s collection have been supported 100 per cent through donation, philanthropy or fundraising. A total of 90 percent of the collection was made possible by private donations. The gallery’s endowment, legacies and memberships are all avenues for this generous support.
AGSA’s recent major acquisition of Jeffrey Smart’s The argument, Prenestina, 1982, is a significant example of this extraordinary power of private generosity. The exciting new addition draws attention to the influential lives of two preeminent figures in Australian art: one a philanthropist and the other an artist.
This key example of Smart’s mature work – exemplifying his unique understanding of colour, geometry, composition and scale – was acquired to commemorate the life of the late James Ramsay AO (1923-1996). This purchase, made possible by the James and Diana Ramsay Fund, is in accordance with the wishes of James’ late wife, Diana Ramsay AO (1926-2017). As one of the nation’s greatest cultural philanthropists, it seems fitting that James’ life should be remembered through the nationally recognized work of Adelaide-born Jeffrey Smart AO (1921-2013).
1963 was a pivotal year for both men: James moved from Sydney to Adelaide with Diana, and Smart left Australia for Italy. In entering and leaving Adelaide, they have both been shaped by the state and left legacies of their own that enrich South Australia, its people and its future.
Founded in Italy in 1982, The argument, Prenestina shows the defining qualities of Smart’s most famous work. With its dramatically low horizon, tilted perspective, and narrow vertical format, the painting demonstrates the artist’s progressive approach to composition.
The precisely recorded scene, which depicts a number of characters engaged in a roadside disagreement, also showcases Smart’s confident use of colour, theatricality and wit. In the artist’s hands, the standing figures appear tiny beneath the towering geometry of sweeping highways. In the middle of a busy street in Prenestina, Italy, a line of trucks—their irregular shapes simplified into a series of cubes—stand in front of tall, multicolored apartment buildings.
From this detailed foreground, Smart directs the viewer’s gaze into the open pictorial space. Solid forms give way to overlapping curves, while the terracotta-pink highways draw the viewer away from human activity and toward a cloud-shrouded blue sky.
Although Smart spent most of his life in Italy (first in Rome and later in Arezzo, Tuscany), he remained committed to his formative education in Adelaide. In the late 1930s and early 1940s he studied at the Adelaide Teachers College and the South Australian School of Arts and Crafts, where he took classes from Marie Tuck and Ivor Hele.
Smart’s visit to the studio of Adelaide modernist Dorrit Black in 1941 was particularly influential. From her home studio in Magill, in the Adelaide suburbs, Black taught Smart the method of composing a work based on the universal mathematical principles of the golden mean. Black was the artist’s first exposure to the possibility of being a studio painter, and later in life Smart explained her impact on his career as profound, like a “shot of adrenaline”.
The argument, Prenestina is a key example of Smart’s mature work, previously absent from the AGSA collection. While the gallery contains several important examples of the artist’s work, including control tower, c.1969, Smart’s famous paintings after 1970 are not represented. Works by the artist from this period and in this quality are rarely available for purchase.
Since his death in 2013, Smart’s works have reached nearly $2 million on the open market. This acquisition, made available to the gallery through Philip Bacon Galleries, would not have been possible without the generous support of the James and Diana Ramsay Fund, established in 2019 on the bequests of James and Diana Ramsay. This fund is a powerful way of growing the gallery’s collection, dedicated solely to acquiring major works of art.
James’ love of art began early. He was born in Launceston, the son of the eminent surgeon Sir John Ramsay and nephew of the well-known artist Hugh Ramsay and the founder of KIWI boot cream, William Ramsay. From birth he entered a cradle of promise, opportunity and success. Yet from an early age, James witnessed his family’s thoughtful philanthropy, which evolved into an appreciation of the transformative impact of the strategic allocation of private wealth over time.
His personal life experiences influenced his subsequent decision with his Adelaide-born wife Diana to bequeath an estate to AGSA. These combined legacies are considered one of the most remarkable Australian cultural gifts ever made.
Jeffrey Smart is renowned for transforming the mundane into the extraordinary, and in doing so this significant new addition becomes a metaphor for James Ramsay’s own transformative role as one of the gallery’s and Australia’s most generous individual donors.
The argument, Prenestina1982 is on display in the AGSA’s Elder Wing of Australian Art, appropriately in the James and Diana Ramsay Gallery.
Rhana Devenport, ONZM, is Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia.
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