The portrait prize that Australians love to love, but much of our “serious” art community loves to hate is back, with the finalists for the $75,000 Archibald Prize announced this morning at the Art Gallery of NSW. The Archies draws crowds like no other regular exhibition — I can’t imagine Ten entertainment reporter Angela Bishop gets the chance to do a live-cross from many exhibition openings.
Although the prize is often marred with controversies, it’s a lucrative win for any artist and can put them before an audience that no other visual arts prize in the country can.
Melbourne artist Lewis Miller is one artist who knows the Archibald well. He won in 1998 for his portrait of fellow artist Allan Mittleman, and has been a finalist 16 times (but not this year).
According to Miller, the Archibald does change the winner’s life.
“Almost immediately I met James Watson – arguably the most famous living scientist in the world (as the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA) who contacted me through Ray Hughes (his dealer) after seeing the Archibald win. I went to Long Island (New York) to do drawings, then paintings of his family. I went back three or four times until 2003 and did about 60 to 90 pencil portraits of scientists working on the human genome mapping project,” he said.
Miller understands the art world’s snootiness about the prize because he says its reputation is not so much about the art, but about the public’s fascination with celebrity.
“But as someone who’s always been interested in portraiture it’s always interesting, and the public feel ownership of it,”‘ he said.
The Archie is awarded by the trustees of the AGNSW to the best portrait “preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics, painted by any artist resident in Australasia” completed in the previous 12 months, and was intended to “encourage portraiture by supporting artists and celebrating the memory of great Australians”. The fact that the Archies are usually celebrity-heavy doesn’t hurt AGNSW’s visitor numbers either.
In fact, the majority of the subjects in this year’s 54 finalists (of 884 entries) would be recognisable to most visitors. Most notably there’s Tim Maguire’s double portrait of Cate Blanchett, Paul Ryan’s swirling Richard Roxburgh and James Powditch’s bold recreation of a film poster featuring Nick Cave, entitled “Citizen Kave”. Robyn Ross’s portrait of City of Sydney Councillor Christine Foster (Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s sister) in a naked embrace with her same sex partner Virginia Edwards didn’t make the cut, but Sophia Hewson’s portrait of herself kissing singer Missy Higgins is a finalist.
Notable Indigenous Australians got a look in, with Abdul Abdullah’s portrait of artist Richard Bell as an astronaut, Jandamarra Cadd’s portrait of Archie Roach and Alan Jones’ portrait of AFL star Adam Goodes. Joining Goodes in the sporting arena are portraits of Torah Bright, Anna Meares and Fuifui Moimoi.
Of course the Archies aren’t the Archies without a little controversy. Tempers regularly flare over everything from the subjects, such as Sam Leach’s depiction of himself as Hitler in 2008 or Evert Ploeg’s 1997 disqualified portrait of the Bananas in Pyjamas, to the selected winners – over which everybody (even those who claim to avoid the prize) seems to have an opinion. This year, Nicole Vaughan’s portrait of senator David Leyonhjelm was at risk of being disqualified when it was revealed that her work had largely not been painted from life (in any case, it didn’t make it into the final 54).
At the event, Director of Collections Suhanya Raffel said: “Debate, discussion and controversy are a large part of the exhibition. So far there hasn’t been much controversy this year, but it’s still early days.”
The winner of the Packing Room Prize was also announced, with Tim Storrier’s portrait of Barry Humphries as Sir Les Patterson winning the $1000 prize. The prize is chosen by the gallery’s staff who receive, unpack and hang the paintings, led by the Gallery’s storeman Steve Peters (who presented the award for his 23rd year). In accepting the prize, Storrier read out a message from Patterson, where he acknowledged his role as the face of Australian politics and culture.
Although a clear crowd favourite, Storrier may have a tough time winning the top prize as no portrait has ever won both the Packing Room Prize and the Archibald. It’s also not the only portrait of Barry Humphries, with Rodney Pople’s painting of the comedian in tails.
But the Archies, like the Logies, gives the “people” their say with a People’s Choice award valued at $3,500. And last year, like the Logies, Offspring star Asher Keddie came out on top, with a portrait of the Gold Logie winner by her husband Vincent Fantauzzo taking out the People’s Choice award. Fantauzzo has an entry this year, with a portrait of his son, Luca in a Superman outfit.
The Archibald finalists, as well as the Sulman Prize (for murals, genre paintings or subject paintings) finalists and Wynne Prize (for landscapes or figure sculpture) finalists, are being exhibited at the AGNSW from 19 July until 28 September, before embarking upon a regional tour. The winner of the Archibald Prize is announced next Friday 18 July.