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  • Writer's pictureART HISTORY

Vale Virginia: Professor Virginia Spate AC FAHA, 1937-2022

A message from Mark Ledbury, Power Professor of Art History and Director of the Power Institute

We mourn the loss today of one of Australia’s most distinguished and best loved art historians, Virginia Spate, a brilliant and committed voice for the Power Institute, the University of Sydney and art history, and a progressive, caring and much-loved friend and colleague. Born in the UK, the daughter of the noted historical geographer, Oskar Spate, Virginia moved with her family to Burma where the family lived until evacuated during the War in the Pacific, and settled in Australia in 1951. After studies at Melbourne University and Cambridge, Virginia took her PhD at Bryn Mawr College, USA. Virginia began her teaching career in the UK and left her post at Cambridge University to take up the role of Power Professor of Fine Art and Director of the Power Institute at the University of Sydney in 1978. In terms of international recognition and depth of scholarship, Virginia Spate was among Australia's most distinguished art historians. Through her teaching, research and service to the University of Sydney she helped to create and sustain a discipline, and shape a whole generation of art curators, teachers and writers. Her career as Power Professor of Art History and Chair of the Art History Department at Sydney gave the decisive impetus to the study of art history as well as film here at Sydney, and set standards of academic rigour and imaginative scholarship as well as fine writing. An inspirational Chair of Department and a beloved colleague, Virginia is remembered fondly by generations of students and alumni. Her vision also helped to create one of Australia's premier cultural institutions, the Museum of Contemporary Art (whose original name was the Power Gallery of Contemporary Art), through her vision of and advocacy for a new museum of contemporary art in the heart of Sydney’s CBD. This now vital institution in Australia’s art infrastructure was made possible, in the first instance, through funding from the Power Bequest for which Virginia advocated powerfully, and through Virginia’s negotiations with University, City and State. Virginia's international scholarly reputation rested firstly on her brilliant studies of French art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Her first book, Orphism (1979) remains a classic and has not been superseded in the literature in forty years; her next book, Monet: The Colour of Time (1992) was received with worldwide acclaim and won the prestigious Mitchell Prize awarded to the best book in Art History by the College Art Association. Virginia is still the only Australian art historian to have received this high honour. Her intellectual and curatorial expertise on Monet also proved vital to the blockbuster exhibition Monet and Japan held at the National Gallery of Australia in 2001, and the accompanying catalogue. The French Government made her a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in 2004 for her distinguished contribution to the understanding of French art and culture. Virginia curated important exhibitions of French art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, including the brilliant and incisive survey of French Revolutionary Art which anticipated many of the intellectual and methodological questions asked a decade later by art historians and historians worldwide (French Painting: The Revolutionary Decades (1980)). Virginia demonstrated an equally deep and abiding interest in and eye for Australian art, and published monographs on Tom Roberts (1985) and John Olsen (1963), and helped to shape many exhibitions on Australian art. Virginia was also a major contributor to the reevaluation of John Power (the artist and benefactor of the Power institute), and contributed greatly to our understanding and knowledge of the sculptor Rayner Hoff, Ian Burn, and other key figures in Australian art. Virginia was a sensitive and passionate advocate of the importance of the Indigenous traditions of art-making in Australia. She demonstrated through her work the complexity of the connections between Australian and European art, and she always asked searching questions of students, and of art itself. Her work and contribution to the humanities in Australia was recognized with a Centenary Medal from the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 2001. Many reviewers of Virginia’s work point to her beautiful, precise and poetic writing style. This should also be noted, because Virginia passionately argued for clarity in writing from her students, and strove to ensure that good writing communicated complex ideas in ways that are comprehensible and elegant. In an age of jargon this is a priceless quality. A precious, sensitive, empathetic colleague and a loyal and supportive friend to many, Virginia was also an advocate and activist for the communities in which she lived, perhaps exemplified by her concern to preserve and document the historic nature of the rapidly changing suburb of Pyrmont as it underwent enormous change in the 1990s. Virginia was an activist for communities, for reconciliation and for Indigenous justice and rights, and was knowledgeable and passionate about Australian Indigenous art and visual culture. The video interview series she helped curate, “Aboriginal Artists Speak”, was also prescient in its insistence on the importance of giving voice back to Indigenous artists and creators. To end on a personal note, it was both Power and Pyrmont that brought me and my family close to Virginia when we first arrived in Australia. Virginia was kind enough to let us house-sit her beautiful Mount Street terrace while she was away in her beloved Paris, and this act of generosity was just the first of so many for which I will always remember Virginia, who was always so concerned for the future of art history and the Power Institute, and so passionate about the continuing importance of visual art in Australian society and culture. Many friends and colleagues of much longer standing will write far more eloquently than I can about Virginia’s fierce, humorous, committed and caring nature and her brilliance as a teacher and scholar; I will remember her as a genial and benevolent elder, an inspiring and imaginative scholar, a twinkle-eyed raconteur, and a passionate advocate for a just, humane and culturally rich society. We will be organizing a celebration of Virginia’s life and work here at the University and will keep all our Alumni and friends informed of the details. Meanwhile I know many of you will have your own memories to share of Virginia’s classes, lectures, parties, and so much more and we’ll try to ensure there is a forum for sharing these. We will all miss Virginia so greatly.

Virginia suggested that friends might like to make a donation to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation in her memory.

Photo courtesy of the Pyrmont History Group.

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