Two Paths Converge in AGSA’s New Acquisition of Jeffrey Smart Painting


“True generosity towards the future consists in giving everything to the present”, wrote Albert Camus.

For over a decade now, all artwork that enters the Art Gallery of South Australia’s collection has been 100% supported by donations, philanthropy or fundraising. In total, 90% of the collection was made possible through private donations. The Gallery Foundation, legacies and memberships are all ways 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. This exciting new addition draws attention to the influential lives of two figures in Australian art: one a philanthropist and the other an artist.

This key example of Smart’s mature work – illustrating his unique understanding of color, 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’s late wife, Diana Ramsay AO (1926-2017). As one of the country’s greatest cultural philanthropists, it seems only fitting that James’ life should be remembered through the nationally acclaimed work of Adelaide-born Jeffrey Smart AO (1921-2013).

For both men, 1963 was a pivotal year: James moved to Adelaide from Sydney with Diana, and Smart left Australia for Italy. In and out of Adelaide, they have both been shaped by the state and, in turn, they have created legacies that enrich South Australia, its people and its future.

Jeffrey Smart, The Argument, Prenestina, 1982, synthetic polymer paint, oil, pencil on canvas, 120.0 x 60.0 cm, James and Diana Ramsay Fund, 2022, in memory of James Ramsay AO. © Jeffrey Smart

Created in Italy in 1982, The Argument, Prenestina displays the defining qualities of Smart’s most famous work. With its dramatically low horizon, angled perspective, and narrow vertical format, the painting demonstrates the artist’s progressive approach to composition.

The accurately recorded scene, depicting a series of figures engaged in a roadside disagreement, also shows Smart’s confident use of color, theatrics and wit. In the hands of the artist, the standing figures appear tiny under the imposing geometry of the curved highways. As part of a busy road in Prenestina, Italy, a line of trucks – their irregular shapes simplified into a series of cubes – come to a halt in front of tall, multicolored buildings.

From this detailed foreground, Smart draws the viewer’s gaze into an open pictorial space. Solid forms give way to overlapping curves, while terracotta-pink highways lead the viewer away from human activity and toward cloudy blue skies.

Although Smart spent most of his life living in Italy (first in Rome and later in Arezzo, Tuscany), he remained indebted to his training in Adelaide. In the late 1930s and early 1940s he studied at Adelaide Teachers College and the South Australian School of Arts and Crafts, where he received lessons from Marie Tuck and Ivor Hele.

Smart’s visit to the studio of Adelaide modernist Dorrit Black in 1941 was particularly influential. From his home studio in Magill, in the foothills of Adelaide, Black taught Smart the method of composing a work based on the universal mathematical principles of middle ground. Black was the artist’s first introduction to the possibility of being a studio painter, and later in life Smart said his influence on his career was profound, like an “adrenaline rush”.

The Argument, Prenestina is a key example of Smart’s mature work, which was previously not represented in the AGSA collection. While the gallery holds several important examples of the artist’s work, including Control Tower, around 1969, Smart’s famous paintings after 1970 were not represented. Works by the artist from this period and of this quality are rarely available for purchase.

Since his death in 2013, Smart’s works have fetched 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, launched in 2019 following the bequests of James and Diana Ramsay. This fund is a powerful avenue for the growth of the gallery’s collection, dedicated solely to the acquisition of major works of art.

James’ love for the arts started early. He was born in Launceston, the son of distinguished surgeon Sir John Ramsay and nephew of well-known artist Hugh Ramsay and KIWI boot polish founder William Ramsay. From birth, he entered a cradle of promise, opportunity and success. Yet, from an early age, James witnessed his family’s thoughtful acts of philanthropy grow into an appreciation of the transformative impact of the strategic allocation of private wealth through time.

His personal life experiences influenced his later joint decision with his Adelaide-born wife Diana to leave bequests to AGSA. These combined legacies are considered to be one of the most remarkable Australian cultural gifts ever made.

Jeffrey Smart is famous for turning the mundane into the extraordinary and in this way this significant new addition becomes a metaphor for James Ramsay’s transformative role as one of the gallery’s and Australia’s most generous individual donors.

The Argument, Prenestina1982 is on display in 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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