The Archibald Prize 2011

What is it?

An annual competition for portraiture running since 1921 in honour of Victorian journalist and art lover, Jules François Archibald, who bequeathed in his will one tenth of his estate to the Art Gallery NSW to set up and run the competition. Submitted portraits must be of “some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics” and be painted from life with the subject’s consent. Archibald’s original intent for the prize was to foster portraiture, an art form he admired, support artists and perpetuate the memory of great Australians.

The art gallery provides some interesting essays on the prize’s history and past controversies, the latter focussing on a long-running debate over the purpose of portraiture – whether should be concerned with achieving a good likeness of the subject or a revelation of his or her character. William Dobell, whose winning 1943 entry was highly controversial and bizarrely faced legal action over whether or not it could even be considered a portrait, has argued that portraiture is about “…trying to create something, instead of copying something… A sincere artist is not one who makes a faithful attempt to put on canvas what is in front of him, but one who tries to create something which is living in itself, regardless of its subject.”

The Archibald Prize 2011 was awarded to Ben Quilty for his portrait of important still-life artist, Margaret Olley (above). The exhibition is on display at Art Gallery NSW until the 26th of June, at which point it commences a regional tour around Australia, list of venues and dates viewable here.

What do we think?

This year’s finalists are a fascinating and varied exhibition comprising high quality paintings, each bearing unique technical application and artistic character.

Quilty’s portrait uses few brushstrokes that manage to be both energetic and precise, capturing a face whose lines tell the story of many years lived but whose expression remains innocent and hopeful. Here is a woman we immediately sense to be kind and compassionate, gently eccentric in the way of many great artists – qualities captured in the colours used for the painting as well as the loose ruddiness of the strokes. It is an expressive work well deserving of the prize.

Perhaps it is not surprising that many of the portraits’ subjects are themselves artists, given the inherently painterly natures of both the entrants and the judges, but we confess to have found this repetitive content underwhelming. More engaging for us were those works that had chosen subjects from other walks of life, providing unexpected windows into the lives of Australians having important and positive impacts on our country. Abdul Abdullah’s portrait of lecturer, political commentator and rock musician, Waleed Aly, was one such work, as were Andrew Mezei’s painting of astronomer and physicist, Professor Penny Sackett, and Amanda Marburg’s depiction of cryptic crossword creator, David Astle.

One other finalist who chose a non-artist as his subject and for whom we voted in the People’s Choice Award, was Tom Macbeth. His sublime portrait is of Jessica Watson, the youngest person in the world to have sailed solo, non-stop and unassisted around the world, returning to Sydney Harbour on the 15th of May 2010, three days before her 17th birthday. Watson sat for the portrait on board her manager’s yacht, the bottom edge of a sail visible behind her. She looks completely at ease, confident and capable in her domain. The environment of the sea has left its indelible marks on her, from her squinting expression – eyes gazing into the sun or perhaps towards far away landmarks and future expeditions – to the bleached white of her hair and its dampness as its clings to the side of her neck. Both her determination and the crisp smell of salt water on a clear but windy day leap out to us from the canvas. It is a powerful and mesmerising portrait, our favourite for 2011.

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