The Archibald Prize: Week 180

'Penelope Seidler' - Medium: acrylic on canvas - Artist: Fiona Lowry

‘Penelope Seidler’ – Medium: acrylic on canvas – Artist: Fiona Lowry

The Archibald Prize is one of the most prestigious arts awards in Australia. The annual prize is named after an Art Gallery of NSW trustee and since 1921 it has been given to the best portrait made in Australia/New Zealand.

To be eligible for the $75,000 prize, the entrant must reside in Australia or New Zealand for one year prior to submission deadlines. JF Archibald had stipulated in his will that the subject be ‘preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics.’ While this guideline is more loosely interpreted, the following rules are hard and fast:

  • Must be a painting.
  • Must be a portrait painted from life, with the subject known to the artist, aware of the artist’s intention and having at least one live sitting with the artist.
  • Must NOT exceed the size limit of 90,000 square cm (eg 3 × 3 m, 1.5 × 6 m). Dimensions apply to the actual work of art, not the mounting or framing. Exhibition wall height is 3.4 m, floor to ceiling.
  • May be a multi-panel work as long as the overall dimensions do not exceed the size limit above.
  • May be painted in any medium (eg oil, acrylic, watercolour, mixed media).
"I wanted to paint him as a mountain" - Medium: oil on canvas - Artist: Abdul Abdullah

“I wanted to paint him as a mountain” – Medium: oil on canvas – Artist: Abdul Abdullah

The guidelines might be clear-cut, but they’ve still generated their fair share of debates. Throughout the 20s and 30s, artists were conservative in their subjects and style. Realism dominated and it wasn’t until the early 40s that a radically different kind of portraiture won the prize.

"Evan on a Sunday morning at the gallery having a ginger tea with some old fat snoring man and some lady pushing someone's annoying crying baby around in a blue pram, and no, you can't smoke here mate" - Medium: Ink on Chinese paper - Artist: Jason Phu

“Evan on a Sunday morning at the gallery having a ginger tea with some old fat snoring man and some lady pushing someone’s annoying crying baby around in a blue pram, and no, you can’t smoke here mate” – Medium: Ink on Chinese paper – Artist: Jason Phu

William Dobell had painted a fellow artist Joshua Smith. What ensued can only be described by the Art Gallery of NSW as a shit storm. Their words, not mine:

Opposition to the win was intense and two Royal Art Society members, Joseph Wolinski and Mary Edwards, took legal action against Dobell and the Gallery’s trustees, alleging that Joshua Smith was ‘a distorted and caricatured form’ and therefore not a portrait. In contrast, the supporters of Dobell described the portrait as both ‘a likeness or resemblance of the sitter and a work of art’, which allowed for distortion for the purpose of art.

Mr Joshua Smith - Medium: Oil on canvas - Artist: William Dobell

Mr Joshua Smith – Medium: Oil on canvas – Artist: William Dobell

In response to critics, Dobell said that when he painted a portrait he was ‘… trying to create something, instead of copying something. To me, a sincere artist is not one who makes a faithful attempt to put on canvas what is in front of him, but one who tries to create something which is living in itself, regardless of its subject. So long as people expect paintings to be simply coloured photographs they get no individuality and in the case of portraits, no characterisation. The real artist is striving to depict his subject’s character and to stress the caricature, but at least it is art which is alive.’

The case stimulated massive press coverage and public comment – by those both familiar and totally unfamiliar with art. Ultimately, the Dobell case became a lively debate about modernism. The question of whether the painting was portraiture or caricature equally asked the questions of what constituted a portrait and what was the relationship of realism to art in general. Justice Roper upheld Dobell’s award on the grounds that the painting, ‘although characterised by some startling exaggeration and distortion… nevertheless bore a strong degree of likeness to the subject and undoubtedly was a pictorial representation of him.’

"Real thing" - Medium: acrylic and oil on canvas - Artist: Mia Oatley

“Real thing” – Medium: acrylic and oil on canvas – Artist: Mia Oatley

Controversy struck again in 1975 when artist John Bloomfield’s photo-realist painting was disqualified. The image was based on a photograph of a British-Australian filmmaker he had never met. By way of the ruling, it was clear that capturing the essence of a known individual was more important than just realistic rendering alone.

Not too many boats were rocked at 2014 Archibald awards though. There was a lot of good work, the right amount of questionable stuff, and a few oddballs; however pretty much everyone agreed that the painting Rose Seidler was worthy of the substantial award.

The winner Fiona Lowry might have been walking on air, but I was also feeling pretty lucky to have been given a free ticket to an exclusive reception with the artists. There were delicious hors d’oeuvres and a buffet table of free champagne. My friend and I traipsed through the galleries back to front and when we scaled the marble steps back up to the foyer we were greeted with anther flute of champagne.

I already love art receptions, but this was like being upgraded to business class. Cheers to the JF Archibald for getting this ball rolling.

About: the Archibald Prize

How to get to the Art Gallery of New South Wales:  Art Gallery Road, The Domain, Sydney NSW 2000

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