The Archibald Prize is arguably the most prestigious and iconic portraiture award in Australia. Since its commencement in 1921 at the posthumous bequest of J.F Archibald, a former co-owner and editor of The Bulletin, the Prize has been the cause of much controversy and media attention, consolidating the career of many artists. Whilst it isn’t the highest paying Australian portraiture prize ($100,000 to the Moran’s $150,000), it is far better known, and for good reason, with J.F Archibald’s edict stating that the portraits are to be ‘preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics, painted by any artist resident in Australasia’. As such, the Archibald has oft depicted well known people of varying degrees of celebrity: politicians, actors, musicians, sports stars, other artists (à la Ben Quilty’s portrait of Australian icon Margaret Olley in 2011).
As we fast approach the centenary of the prize with today’s announcement of the 2018 winner, Yvette Coppersmith’s ‘Self-portrait, after George Lambert’, the Prize has demonstrated how portraiture has moved strictly from realism to a more emotive mode of painting. This was first particularly noted after the controversy surrounding the now infamous painting ‘Portrait of an Artist (Joshua Smith)’ by Sir William Dobell (whose portrait of Dame Mary Gilmore is featured on the Australian $10 notes), which won the prize in 1943, calling into question the nature and guidelines of portraiture, with the work being contested in the Supreme Court of New South Wales by two other entrants for falling into the genre of caricature as opposed to portraiture and thus not eligible for the prize. Nonetheless, their verdict was overturned and the Archibald has continued to be a demonstration of the changing face of art within Australia.
In 2014, there were over 130,000 tickets sold to the finalist exhibitions for the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes, and it is an event that attracts over $1 million in profit each year, with that number only climbing. There is criticism that it is, to quote gallery owner Michael Reid, ‘a media circus’ as opposed to a respected art prize. Regardless of opinion, it has undoubtedly cemented its place in the Australian art world and provides a platform for artists such as Ben Quilty, Del Kathryn Barton, Yvette Coppersmith, Fiona Lowry and more to be recognised outside of the often introspective sphere of the art world.
Portraiture is so often stereotyped as a stoic, bygone form of art, with Dobell stating during the Joshua Smith case that ‘so long as people expect paintings to be simply coloured photographs they get no individuality and in the case of portraits, no characterisation. The real artist is striving to depict his subject’s character and to stress the caricature, but at least it is art which is alive.’ That is not to say that realism is out dated and irrelevant, but that the nature of portraiture goes beyond capturing a physical likeness of the subject. It is perhaps this unique insight of the artist, particularly when applied to so many notable figures in Australian culture, that has made the Archibald Prize the icon that it is today.
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