The Archibald prize is the most accessible of art prizes. Yet it is also the most frustrating, beguiling, annoying, fascinating and infuriating prize, and more than that, it’s the also the essential art prize on Australia’s annual calendar of art events.
The Archibald Prize is a publicity magnet, it draws in the crowds, it has a decent purse attached to it and it can make the careers of artists. It is liked and loathed in equal measure... Its past controversies are well remembered too - and every New Year promises another.
I think we could agree that the Archibald Prize produces great paintings, some even win, and there are some terrible paintings, and some of these win too.
For any artist who enters the prize, they are potentially taking their place among the pantheon of the greats.
The Archibald’s grand tradition goes back to the teens of the last Century. J.F. Archibald, a journalist and the founding editor of The Bulletin, died in 1919 and bequeathed ten per cent of his £90,000 estate to the Art Gallery of NSW to set up an annual portrait prize. As Peter Ross’s history of the Archibald Let’s Face It wryly notes, the competition’s first year in 1921 was a period of great artistic innovation in Europe with Surrealism, Dadaism, Cubism and Futurism all existing side by side. In Australia, however, the tradition of 19th century academic portraiture was alive and well, as if preserved by its isolation from the rest of the artistic world like a lost land of dinosaurs
Complaints over the Archibald’s perceived lack of innovation, subjects and techniques were voiced by critics as early as 1920 and they seem eerily familiar to critical attitudes today. The Sydney Morning Herald noted in 1932 that “the prize has acted as a magnet to every person with even the most rudimentary knowledge of art. The work has been of an extremely varied nature, ranging from the very fine to most ludicrous and pathetic.” Writing in the Herald art critic John McDonald once described the Archibald competition – along with a range of other portrait themed competitions and exhibitions in Sydney timed to cash in on the Archibald excitement - as a disease. “I’ve often suspected that the Archibald Prize was an antipodean sickness,” he wrote, “but now it seems like a virus that has infected every venue in Sydney.”
The various celebrated instances of protest, litigation and controversy over the Archibald prize are all related to its struggle with the evolution of the contemporary practice of painting. The 1943 court case over William Dobell’s portrait of Joshua Smith – which, it was claimed, was a caricature and not a proper portrait – was eerily echoed in the legal stoush between rejected artist Tony Johansen and the trustees of the AGNSW over his claim that Craig Ruddy’s 2004 winning portrait of David Gulpilil was a drawing and not a proper painting. The Archibald’s controversies have taken on a traditionalist bent, much like the prize itself.
This maelstrom of claim and counter claim is forgotten every year and I have to confess that, no matter how I have felt about a year of entries and winners, I never miss the show. I always feel the excitement and anticipation of each new crop of finalists and hope, not so secretly, to be outraged, thrilled, excited and infuriated all over again. There’s nothing like the smell of oil paint in the morning.
I think the Archibald’s main success as an institution is its enduring popularity with the general public. It’s not for nothing that the Archibald attracts big crowds, not just at the opening and throughout its run at the Art Gallery of NSW, but at places such as here, as a selection of finalists and the winner goes on tour. What is it that makes this prize so appealing?
To look upon the faces of others in art, just as we do in our day to day life, is to make contact with humanity in its most immediate essence. The portrayal of the human body is the direct link between the art of virtually every culture on Earth, and our consistent fascination with the subjects of Archibald portraits is a demonstration of the most meaningful exchange between those people within a culture. I think art at its best when it’s a conversation between people, between the egalitarian impulse and the private need to commune with the creativity of others, to see the world how others see it. That to me is the value of the Archibald Prize, and the reason we all keep going back.
Thanks so much for asking me to be here tonight.
Without any further ado it gives me great pleasure to declare this exhibition open.
Andrew Frost, Writer & Host of ABC1s The Art Lifewww.artlife.blogspot.com/
Labels: Archibald Prize