Jump to Content

Revealing the enigmatic Samstags

GORDON SAMSTAG: Young man desires position, 1930, oil on canvas, 127.3 x 120.7cm (Clarke Prize, National Academy, New York, USA, 1931), Sheldon Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute, Indiana, USAUpon his death in 1990, former South Australian School of Art (SASA) lecturer Gordon Samstag bequeathed US$5.6 million to establish a perpetual trust to allow Australian fine art students to study abroad – creating The Anne and Gordon Samstag International Visual Arts Scholarships. Vincent Ciccarello reports.

Despite his largesse, surprisingly little is known about Gordon Samstag, but a research project to uncover details of his life and work will receive a major impetus this month with the arrival of the inaugural Samstag writer-in-residence, a cooperative venture between the SASA and the Samstag Program. Well-known Adelaide art critic and freelance writer, Wendy Walker, has been appointed to the position to conduct the research and to lead a series of writing workshops with SASA students.

Ross WolfeFor Ross Wolfe, former deputy of the Art Gallery of SA and director of the Samstag Program since its inception, Walker’s appointment brings the vision of a comprehensive Samstag biography one step closer.

"It occurred to me very early in the piece that Mr Samstag was a man whose life was a mystery to everyone we talked to. Yet he was an outstanding benefactor who clearly deserved some more light to be shone on him," he said.

In the mid-90s, Wolfe, in association with SASA, applied for and won an ARC grant to fund a PhD student to carry out the research. That work was cut short by the student’s untimely death, but not before uncovering some significant information.

"Mr Samstag modestly concealed his artistic status and the considerable achievements of his pre-Adelaide life from all of his Adelaide associates," Wolfe said, "but we now know him to be a man of artistic substance – he had a creditable career as an artist, before coming to Australia."

Born in New York City in 1906, Gordon Samstag had been co-director of the American School of Art before moving to Australia with his wife Anne in June 1961 to teach at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. In October that year, he took up the position of senior lecturer at SASA, where he taught until 1970. The couple moved to Cairns in 1973, retiring in Florida three years later.

Wolfe has commissioned Dr Lea Rosson DeLong, a US expert in American realist painting, to investigate Samstag’s American career; and, to coincide with the 2004 showcase of Samstag Scholarship alumni, Kindle and Swag: The Samstag Effect, Wolfe sought articles by Daniel Thomas for Art & Australia and Wendy Walker for Art Monthly Australia.

Walker said she became fascinated by the mystery surrounding Samstag through her preliminary research.

"Some people adored him but others felt extremely strong negative feelings about him. He was obviously a complex person," she said.

The Samstags enjoyed what has been described as a comfortable, rather than lavish, lifestyle. Walker said Gordon was always impeccably well-dressed but drove "a clapped-out old Holden". The couple lived in a stylishly modern house in Beaumont.

Walker hopes, with the assistance of Dr Rosson DeLong, to reveal the source of the Samstags’ wealth. One theory is that Anne had inherited the fortune. Another is that the couple made a handsome sum from their book, Training Your Own Dog, published by Knopf in New York in 1961.

But the bigger question remains – why Adelaide? Walker recounted a meeting in the late 1980s between Gordon Samstag and Tony Bishop, then acting head of SASA.

"Samstag reflected that he had always ‘marched to the beat of a different drum’, and Bishop gained the impression that the older man viewed his years in Adelaide as the happiest of his life," Walker said.

It is a heartening premise – but we will have to wait for the Samstag biography to complete the picture.

If you have any information including memorabilia pertaining to the Samstags, please contact Wendy Walker on (08) 8339 2826, or Ross Wolfe on (08) 8302 0869 or ross.wolfe@unisa.edu.au