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We need to talk about Archibald: how portraits lost their punch

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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.
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
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.
Edgar_Degas_Place_de_la_ConcordeWEB[box]Featured image: Robert Hague, Shutdown, marble, 2015[/box]

5 responses to “We need to talk about Archibald: how portraits lost their punch

  1. Excellent text. The Archie prooves that there is no real art now and everyone should acknowledge this. Just look at the silly empty spaces of the Kaldor wing. Australian art is run by public servants who are always wanting increased audience numbers so they ape popular culture. I prefer the “honesty” of popular culture over the hypocrisy of the fine art crowd. Ther is no art in the Archibald Prize. We all know that. Even Ben Quilty’s Margaret Olley is really a bad painting. It does not need to be that huge, in fact its ridiculous but so many think its amazing. Its not. Its Pop Art disguised by thick paint to ape High Art. In a way its fascinating but its not good.
    But none of this matters, the Archibald proves that Australia has no need for high art at all. This is why it is what it is and no one at AGNSW cares as its popular. BUT this is the hypocrisy. Really our art galleries should be sold off to Westfield. As for Contemporary Art it all looks like everyother image or object in the outside world just dragged into Art. Kylie Minogue’s stage costumes should have been at Venice. No that would get better press than Cate Blanchette swanning around trying to make driftwood look interesting.

  2. Thank you for the article, I love the Degas portrait. It does seem somewhat ironic that in an age where the image of the self, and the ability to freeze images of others is so ubiquitous and paramount, the distillation of the portrait that is the Archibald is so anaemic. Personally I’d love to see some miniature watercolours on 3d printed artificial Rhinoceros Horn now that you have raised the prospect.

  3. The Archibald is a sporting event, like all art prizes. Australia loves sport, which is why the only media attention that the visual arts receive in this country is over an art prize: Who wins the $100,000? It has nothing to do with an intimate experience of art as articulated by Patrick Hartigan in his article in last week’s Saturday Paper, which thankfully ignored the Archibald.

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