News & Commentary, Visual Arts We need to talk about Archibald: how portraits lost their punch By Patricia Anderson | July 22, 2015 | What does it say about the Archibald Prize when one of the most arresting portraits is hanging in the Wynne Prize? In fact, not hanging but resting on a plinth. Robert Hague’s marble sculpture Shutdown (pictured above) is pregnant with contemporary relevance, rich in historical associations and its remarkable technical virtuosity is not an end in itself — as is the case with so many Archibald entrants, year in, year out. What will distinguish the avalanche of portraits painted today, prompted by generous prizes on offer annually, from those of the last four decades? Not much. Which portraits will make their way into history in this inattentive, sensation-addicted, image-saturated culture? Probably none. What effect do new technologies — and here I include the invention of paints in tin tubes (by an American naturally) so eagerly taken up by the French impressionists — have on the production of a portrait? And why the inevitable sameness? Almost every work in the show is a work on canvas, board or paper and many are over-scaled and noisy. All these questions, aided by a glass or two of bubble, floated to the surface after this reviewer’s visit to the Archibald Prize at the Art Gallery of NSW. Why not examine the “inevitable sameness” first. This is where fashion rears its head. Fashion seems to be the result of some invisible consensus that chimes with the times and reinforced by the “me too” instinct. In the case of the Archibald Prize, large is good, bright and colourful is good, emphatic is good, agitated brushwork is good, a celebrity sitter is best — all calibrated to catch and hold the eye of the trustees. This in turn prompted some thoughts about the resourcefulness and sheer skill of artisans in earlier centuries who captured memorable likenesses, not just of individuals, but something of the spirit of the age. And this brings us to one of the most celebrated portraits of all time, Holbein’s the younger’s Two Ambassadors which is replete with symbolism and analogies, but more of that later. Historically, paint on canvas or board, is a relative newcomer to the scene. The Egyptians carved likenesses in the toughest of granites and quartzites, so that 4000 years later we can still gaze at their impassive expressions with wonder. The Romans took realism and naturalism to remarkable extremes and often on the tiniest of surfaces, such as this 20 x 12 cm onyx cameo portrait of emperor Claudius, his wife and her parents. Gemma Claudia, Roman, c. 49AD, five layered onyx, 12cm. Depicting Claudius and 4th wife Empress Agrippina, and parets of Agrippina. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Tiny it may be, but it is packed with details. The four profiles rise out of two cornucopias (symbols of fruitfulness and plenty) and the imperial Roman eagle nestles between them. Augustus and his father in law each wear an olive wreath. The skill required for this miniaturised carving is mirrored in this amethyst intaglio portrait of Caracalla from around 212 AD (below). In Christian times a cross and an inscription were added so the jewel could pass for Saint Peter — an early example of defacing an existing artwork. Portrait painting for the purpose of rendering individual likeness all but vanished during a 1000 years of Christian piety where man shrank to a standardised penitent or sinner with his saucer eyes firmly fixed on the hereafter. The most dramatic developments in portraiture after the freshly humanist frescos of Italians Masaccio and Piero della Francesco in the early 1400s are linked to the Netherlands and to the invention of oil painting. Imagine if the young artists today had to grind their own pigments, mix their own oil formulas or paint directly onto wet plaster. Piero della Francesca, Exaltation of the Cross, detail, 1452-66, fresco, San Francesco, Arezzo The luminous colours, the precision of details and levels of opacity and transparency achieved with oils are distilled Holbein the Younger’s Two Ambassadors (below). This splendid work reminds us of what so much modern portraiture lacks. The fellow on the left is Jean de Dinteville, on his right is George de Selve. The pursuit of sciences, of earthly pleasure — of the contemplative life and the active life are all presented here through various instruments and objects and broken lute string hints at discord in the court of Henry VIII. As if the anatrophic skull at their feet is not enough, half hidden behind the green drape is a small reminder of the limits of earthly ambition. Another type of portraiture has never once been attempted by an Archibald aspirant. This is the miniature watercolour on ivory, so sought after in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This late 1700s work by James Peale, at 7.3cm, is a remarkable example of what can be achieved on the tiniest of surfaces. Col. Richard Thomas, 1796 by James Peale, watercolour on ivory, 7.3cm Finally, the newer technologies of tubes in tin tubes (which let painters work outdoors and with speed) and the advent of photography, changed the process of conceiving a portrait forever. Both technologies are visible in this remarkable portrait by Eduard Degas Viscount Lepic and his Daughters Crossing the Place de la Concorde, (1875, below) in which he captures four people and one dog at the moment they are about to move out of the picture. It has all the informality of a snapshot. In comparison many of the portraits hanging in the Archibald, while technically unassailable, look surprisingly unimaginative and in the final count, formulaic. [box]Featured image: Robert Hague, Shutdown, marble, 2015[/box] Facebook Twitter Pinterest LinkedIn Email About the Author: Patricia Anderson Patricia Anderson is the former editor of the Australian Art Review and author of six books on the art world.