The enduring spirit of the Archibald Prize

By Angela Heathcote 5 July 2017
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The finalists for the 2017 Archibald Prize have been announced.

THE ARCHIBALD PRIZE has been around since 1921 and since then, countless portraits of Australia’s most distinguished characters have been submitted, from former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, to Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, renowned Indigenous musician.

Anne Ryan, this year’s curator of the prize, says that the most iconic moments in the Archibald’s storied past are parallel to key moments in Australian history, meaning the artists have no choice but to get with times. 

See the official list of finalists for this years Archibald Prize hereThe winner is announced next week.

The evolution of the Archies

As per the original bequest of the Prize’s founder, J. F. Archibald, the prize continues to exhibit portraits of a man or woman distinguished in the fields of art, literature or politics. However, the age-old declaration by J. F Archibald has not been immune to a few minor tweaks.

“The first woman to win the prize back in 1938 was Nora Heysen. This was an important moment after many years of portraits by men, of men,” Anne told Australian Geographic. Anne says that the exhibited works have diversified in terms of artists, style and subject matter.

In 1943, controversy surrounded the Archies when a group of artists rebelled against the decision of the trustees to award William Dobell with the winning prize, believing his artwork to be more of a caricature than a portrait.

Nowadays, this is commonplace. “If you look at the winning portrait from 2006, Marcus Wills’ piece was this extraordinary dark, small painting of a weird geologically formed skull. I would never have picked that one to win,” she says. “I thought it was just too left of field but the trustees went for it.”

Beyond the portrait itself

Despite that the Archibald Prize is a tribute to the genre of portrait art; Anne said that this form allows for unique methods of understanding the artists themselves.

“The best portraits are the ones where the artist is absolutely true to their own visual language,” she said. Last year’s winner, a portrait of Barry Humphries by Louise Hearman is a perfect example of an artist radiating through their portrait work.

“Hearman’s paintings usually have a specific light contrast with a dark background. If you think about her subjects, they’re the kind of surreal, dream-like subject matter that gives the impression they’re being painted at night,” Anne explained.

“Barry Humphries has been painted before, winning and non-winning portraits, either as Edna or himself. Hearman had picked him out of character, as himself. All these tiny decisions that an artist’s makes really tells you something.”

This trend has continued into this year’s entries with Northern Territory-based artist, Megan Adams choosing to paint Adam Goodes in technicolour, in order to make a statement about racism — an issue that young Indigenous people from her community continue to endure. 

A unique moment in time for the art world

The Archibald Prize takes entries from all across Australia, which are then exhibited from 29 July to 22 October.

“During the exhibition, the building is just full of happy artists who get to show their work to a really big audience,” she says, adding “The Archibald is our most well attended exhibition of the year, every year. Often it’s the annual visit people will make to the gallery, even if they’re not regulars. Everyone shares their opinions on the works, which we love.”

Anne says it’s the one time when all eyes are on the art world, where audiences and the media are simply captivated.

Over her long career at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Anne has curated two Archibald Prize exhibitions — this year’s exhibition and one in 2015. Anne quietly says that her favourite part of the exhibition is in fact the familiar smell.

“It smells like an art studio and it doesn’t often happen in our gallery because we don’t usually hang works that were wet just a week before.”

The Archibald Prize exhibition runs from the 29 July-22 October at the Art Gallery of NSW. You can purchase tickets here.

Archibald Prize

Deng by Nick Stathopoulos. (Photo Credit: Art Gallery of New South Wales)