Archibald prize turns 100: love it or hate it, it reflects a changing nation

In January 1953, a group of students marched into the Art Gallery of New South Wales to protest the Archibald prize. Their anger was directed at a single painting: William Dargie’s portrait of Essington Lewis, a former BHP boss and wartime director of munitions.

This painting, in which Lewis appeared wearing a three-piece suit and a stern, reproachful stare, was hardly likely to challenge the boundaries of portraiture – but it was a solid likeness, and that was enough to win Dargie, the man who called modern artists “anti-democratic and reactionary”, the Archibald for the seventh time.

The students were fed up. They entered the gallery with placards – “Art ain’t just paint” – and made their way to the Archibald display. The only protester to give his name to a reporter was an artist called John Olsen, who had turned 25 three days earlier. “Dargie,” he said, “has nothing to do with art.”

Olsen’s opinion, while crude, has not aged badly. If Dargie is remembered at all, it’s for his Archibald success and his work as an official war artist during the second world war; his reputation has otherwise faded from view.

But that protest in 1953 was also consistent with the anxieties that have long attached themselves to this competition. The Archibald, which celebrates its centenary this year, has been a magnet for debate since its inception partly because of what these paintings reveal about the country around it, and how that reconciles with the stories that Australians like to tell about themselves. To sift through the history of the prize, from the winners to the finalists, to consider the faces both recognised and neglected, is to encounter a wonderfully messy narrative, forever contested and evolving.

No wonder the crowds come. Australia has other art competitions, including the Moran, which is a richer portrait prize, but none have the conversational impact of the Archibald. Nor does it seem to matter what critics think, since they’ve been attacking the show for decades.

Perhaps it’s like a school year book, only more aesthetically pleasing. The names alone reflect the shifting currents: Robert Menzies (1932, 38, 41, 50, 54, 62, 64), Gough Whitlam (68, 72, 79, 98), Rolf Harris (73), Fred Hollows (93), David Gulpilil (2004), Julia Gillard (2006), Robert Doyle (2010), Jessica Watson (2011), Leigh Sales (2019). The paintings selected offer insights into the cultural, political and social obsessions of the time. And when we examine the reactions to that selection, clear prejudices and enthusiasms emerge.

All this, of course, is one function of a portrait gallery, whether in London or Canberra or beyond: to reflect the society around it. The difference here, and the reason the Archibald generates such fascination, and such heat, is that the experiment is refreshed every year. That means there’s always time to change the story.

Like the story about gender. The first woman to win was Nora Heysen, a “pretty blue-eyed” artist, as one reporter put it. Her 1938 portrait of Elink Schuurman, a Dutch diplomat’s wife, resulted in complaints from other artists that the competition had gained an “undesirable social aspect”.

Others were no less encouraging. “Girl painter who won art prize is also good cook,” was the headline in the Australian Women’s Weekly, a theme echoed in the Daily Telegraph, which reported that Heysen was “cutting up carrots in her kitchen to make a stew” after winning the prize. The Adelaide Mail had its own angle: “Can a woman be an artist – and a wife?”

Five years later, William Dobell won with a portrait of fellow artist Joshua Smith. His painting, a striking departure for the Archibald, also exposed an uneasiness among some connoisseurs about modernism. The painting ended up in court, accused of being a caricature. Dobell was involved in lively exchanges with opposing counsel while being questioned about individual parts of the picture: “I might just as well criticise the conduct of your case by the angle of your wig.”

Dargie was not done, by the way. He won again in 1956, his eighth Archibald. But this time, instead of another distinguished white man as his subject, he chose central Australian artist Albert Namatjira, defending his selection like this: “He is a member of a race which is often wrongly regarded by Australians as inferior.” Another painter, Edna Garran-Brown, also entered a Namatjira portrait that year.

So yes, times change, if slowly. After Heysen, there have been only nine other women named Archibald winners, five in the past 20 years. Indigenous faces began to appear more regularly too – as subjects – but it took 99 years of competition for an Aboriginal painter to actually win.

Vincent Namatjira, Albert’s great-grandson, had entered a double portrait of the artist with Adam Goodes. His win was popular, but the cynics with megaphones weren’t far away. Andrew Bolt called it “the best propaganda by a black artist pushing race politics” while Tony Thomas was even more inflammatory in Quadrant. For better or worse, both the painting and the reactions tell a story about Australia in 2020.

Various characters ricochet through the years. Olsen has been a protestor, a trustee, a subject, a winner, then a protester again. The latter, in 2017, came after young Mitch Cairns won with a portrait of his partner. Like Vincent Namatjira, Cairns had come close to winning a few years earlier, and his victory felt both destined and deserved. But not to Olsen, who contacted journalists after the announcement, ensuring headlines were dominated not by Cairns’s achievement but by Olsen’s denouncement of his picture.

Sometimes lack of dissent is a story in itself. When Brett Whiteley won in 1976, Self-Portrait in the Studio was seen as a daring extension of the genre. Two years later, then something of a celebrity in his own right, he won with a picture called Art, Life and the Other Thing, simultaneously winning the Sulman and Wynne and appearing as the subject of another Archibald entry.

Whiteley’s heroin addiction, hinted at in 1976, was now centre stage. But this time, there was no controversy. Only admiration. From Italy, Jeffrey Smart looked on with disdain: “This mute conditioned respect is worse than the intolerance which Bill Dobell met with the Joshua Smith. How the pendulum has swung!”


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