Archibald Prize

The Highs And Lows Of The Archibald by Geoff Harrison

Visiting the Archibald Prize is akin to viewing a weather map.  But if droughts are caused by an excess of ‘Highs’ and not enough ‘Lows’, some recent Archibald’s would have had me reaching for the life jackets.  This most prestigious of art awards has been courting controversy since at least 1943 with William Dobell’s winning portrait of fellow artist Joshua Smith.  So incensed were 2 Sydney artists with the decision, they took the matter to the Supreme Court alleging the portrait was a caricature. 

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Dobell has been described by some art historians as a timid rabbit who suddenly found the spotlight rudely thrust upon him.  Interviewed many years later, Dobell said he became so distressed over the episode that he developed severe dermatitis as well as temporarily losing the sight of one eye and the use of one leg.  He said he could never forgive those responsible.  Dobell won the case, but he shied away from portraiture for a while before making a triumphant return to the Archibald in 1948 with his winning a portrait of Margaret Ollie.  He won again in 1959.  The Smith portrait was later almost totally destroyed by fire before being sent to the UK for the “less-than-successful” restoration seen above.


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Dobell died in 1970 and given the events around the Smith painting, one wonders what he would have made of Adam Cullen’s winning portrait of actor David Wenham in 2000. About all that can be said of it is that it meets the three key criteria for winning the Archibald these days; it’s big, the subject is well known and it’s topical as Wenham was starring alongside Sigrid Thornton in the ABC TV series Seachange at the time.

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To me, one of the more memorable recent winners was Craig Ruddy’s 2004 portrait of actor David Gulpilil.  This image does the work no favours at all.  I saw it in the flesh and it was a stunner. 

And so to the 2019 prize currently on show at Tarrawarra and Anh Do’s entry left me even more convinced he would make a very good plasterer of feature walls.  In recent years I have found the Archibald a rather cold and alienating experience.  Perhaps it’s a sign of the times and some of the works in this award fit that description, but not all.

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There’s Tsering Hannaford’s studied portrait of Adelaide philanthropist Mrs. Singh, superbly executed but perhaps too conventional?

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Jude Rae’s portrait of actor Sarah Peirse performing the role of Miss Docker in Patrick White’s “A Cheery Soul” is emotive and powerful.

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There’s Katherine Edney’s exquisite little “Self Portrait With Ariel”.  She was 37 weeks pregnant with her first child at the time.

Jun Chen (1) Maos Last D.jpg

Last year, Jun Chen was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to paint Li Cunxin, the Chinese-Australian former ballet dancer who is now artistic director of Queensland Ballet.  The title ‘Mao’s Last Dancer’ is also the title of Cunxin’s autobiography that was later made into a film.  There is something ethereal about this painting, almost as if the figure is not really there.

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And the winner is………..Tony Costa with his portrait of fellow artist Lindy Lee.  Viewed at close range this work is unconvincing, but step back at least 10 metres and there is a real presence about it.  The figure appears to be floating in space.

The Archibald continues at the Tarrawarra Museum of Art until 5th November.