August through October the Archibald trio is a Sydney hot topic. Who got it right? The judges? The packing room? The people’s choice? None of the above?
You can’t miss the Archibalds if you’re in Sydney at the end of July. Every newspaper, every TV channel and every major blog post follows the arrival and unpacking of the 800 plus entrants into this annual portrait prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Only about 40 will make the cut and be hung as finalists. The packing room will choose the one they think should win – the kiss of death for its chances at first prize, at least up until today.
Portrait Innovations & Archibald Controversy
The Archibalds have historically invited controversy, often as a result of innovations that other artists were not prepared to accept and have challenged in court.
The Archibald prize in 1943 was won by William Dobell with a portrait of Joshua Smith.
Some of the other entrants claimed it to be a caricature and not a portrait.
This was based on the unnaturally stretched neck, arms and body of the sitter.
After huge public debate the issue went to court to be decided.
The judge determined that he could not override the decision of the trustees, the legally appointed judges, and the prize stayed with Dobell.
A later winner, John Bloomfield (1975), was not so lucky.
His portrait of Tim Burstall was subsequently disqualified.
This was on the grounds that it had been painted from a photograph rather than from life.
The AGNSW nevertheless acquired it in 1976.
I imagine we’ll get a retrospective of the many controversial Archibald winners one day.
Such a group would include Craig Ruddy’s 2004 portrait of actor David Gulpilil.
This was challenged on the grounds that it wasn’t a painting.
It was argued that it was, largely, a charcoal sketch.
The Supreme Court dismissed the challenge.
Tim Storrier’s winning portrait of 2012, the first painting in this post, was also widely debated.
Is it a portrait? It doesn’t actually have a face. Smudge the dog has, but the man’s face is missing.
What is the Archibald Trio?
The Archibald prize is only one of a trio of major art prizes awarded annually by the Art Gallery of NSW.
It is the most valuable (worth $100,000 today) and most controversial. Named after J.F. Archibald, founder and editor of The Bulletin, for many years Sydney’s pre-eminent and highly nationalistic monthly, Archibald’s will of 1919 left 10% of his estate to fund a prize for
“the best portrait, preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics, painted by an artist resident in Australia during the twelve months preceding the date fixed by the trustees for sending in the pictures”
Second in the list is the Wynne prize. Worth $50,000 this is for
“the best landscape painting of Australian scenery in oils or watercolours or the best example of figure sculpture by Australian artists completed during the 12 months preceding the date fixed by the Trustees for sending in entries”.
The Wynne receives over 700 entries each year, with many artists entering both the Wynne and the Archibald.
Third in our Archibald trio is the Sulman prize, worth $40,000. This is given to
“the best subject/genre painting and/or mural/mural project done by an artist (resident in Australia during the five preceding years) during the two years preceding the date fixed by the Trustees for sending in entries”.
There has been only one artist who has won the trifecta of the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes in the same year. That was Brett Whitely in 1976.
It was another controversial Archibald winner, with the mirrored face being a very small proportion of the painting.
One of the reasons the Archibald prize remains so popular is the contemporaneous nature of the portraits.
The requirement for entries to be painted in the 12 months before entering the competition means that the year’s current heroes, stars and famous Australians are likely to be the subjects.
Gough Whitlam, prime minister of Australia from 1972 to 1975, sat for artist Clifton Pugh, who won the 1972 Archibald prize with the portrait. How much Whitlam’s newly achieved sweep to power had to do with this, we don’t know.
After the dismissal in 1975 Whitlam refused to sit for the traditional prime ministerial portrait and simply instructed that Pugh’s portrait be used instead. Which it duly was.
Women in the Archibalds
Bad news here. Women are, have always been, wildly under-represented in the Archibald trio winners’ circle and, especially, in the Archies themselves.
The Archibald prize was first given in 1921. In almost 100 years exactly 9 women have won it.
Here they are:
- Nora Heysen, 1938
- Judy Cassab, (twice) 1960, 1967
- Janet Dawson, 1973
- Davida Allen, 1986
- Wendy Sharpe, 1996
- Cherry Hood, 2002
- Del Kathryn Barton (twice) 2008, 2013
- Fiona Lowry, 2014
- Louise Hearman, 2016
Women as sitters are also under-represented, but not quite as badly.
Although few and far between in earlier periods, in the past 20 or so years there have been women as subjects in around 30%, on average, of the hung finalists.
Who Actually Chooses the Archibald Prize Winner?
The short answer: The Trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW. But who are they?
Well, they’re not generally art professionals. Of the 11 current trustees, 2 are artists. There are no art curators, art historians or professional art critics among them. They are predominantly business men and women, with a sprinkling of philanthropists (who may also be business people). By gender, it’s 7 men to 4 women.
Having the prize awarded by non-professionals can make it a bit of a lottery and is no doubt one of the reasons that the trustees’ choices are so readily critiqued. It’s also another reason why the Archibald trio is so popular.
We non-professional viewers are invited to speculate on what sways the judges from year to year. Was it, as with Gough’s portrait, the right sitter for the time, reflecting the brave new world Australia was launched into? Was it tunnel vision when the trustees awarded the prize to William Dargie eight times between 1945 and 1956? (He holds the record for the most Archibald wins.)
It’s all good fun and keeps our interest up.
While the trustees themselves select the Archibald and Wynne prize winners, for the Sulman prize they appoint a single artist, a different one each year, who acts alone as the sole judge. Which again allows for outliers and long shots. There’s probably already a book made on the Archibald trio each year. Why not?
Salon des Refusés
What about all those paintings that don’t make it to the walls of the art gallery? There are three possibilities for such a painting:
- It is taken away and never heard of again
- It is shown at the S.H. Ervin Gallery where, since 1992, the Salon des Refusés is exhibited. For example, Nicolette Eisdell’s portrait of Judy Cassab in 2015, a finalist in the Salon’s alternative Archibalds.
- A sulphur-crested cockatoo named Maude (as judge) awards it the Bald Archy prize.
Should I Go to the Archibalds?
- We all go.
- It’s a Sydney thing.
- It’s the art gallery’s single biggest exhibition each year.
- It pulls in more crowds than any international blockbuster.
- You probably know as much about art as the judges, don’t hold back!