Sydney’s annual embrace of portraiture is in full steam at the Art Gallery of NSW until June 3. It’s just not as exciting, engaging or entertaining as it has been over the last several years. In fact I did it in thirty minutes which I think is a new record for a major exhibition.
The Archibald Prize is one of Australia’s oldest and most prestigious art prizes. It’s awarded to the best portrait painting, preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics. This show has 40 finalist works, including portraits of Australian identities such as David Gulpilil, John Wood, Father Bob Maguire, Kimbra and Missy Higgins. But many people I didn’t know – which kind of takes the fun out of it.
The Archibald Prize is judged by the Trustees of the Art Gallery who it seems like two kinds of work these days the huge, over oiled type or the totally photogenic, so it’s hard to feel any emotion other than indifference.
The winning portrait titled The histrionic wayfarer (after Bosch) by Tim Storrier is a self-portrait without a face which includes a drawing of himself scribbled on a piece of paper being blown away by the wind. It certainly seemed to cause a bit of a stir the day I was there with the general census tending to disappointment. It seemed easy to understand people’s reaction given the winners of the last few years had been easily recognisable and popular figures such as Margaret Olley and Tim Minchin.
Contrast this with the annual Packing Room Prize which is adjudicated by the Gallery’s storeman, Steve Peters and which was won this year by Raelene Sharp with an easily recognised portrait of John Wood titled A strength of character. Being a very popular Logie winning actor the crowds seemed to lap it up. This Packers Prize winner joins a long list grounded in what might be considered the more traditional form of portraiture and has included in past years those of Matt Moran, Glenn A. Baker and Paul Livingston as Flacco.
The highlight of my visit was when I came across the self portrait of Jenny Sages titled After Jack which I found compelling and the only work that evoked an emotion. Her husband had recently died and this picture was fall of a woman in mourning for this love she has lost. It was wonderful to feel surrounded by other people taking in the picture with the collective silence adding to the engagement of the work almost as if we were intruding on her. I noticed as I left the exhibition and voted for her in the People’s Choice Prize I wasn’t alone.
Jules François Archibald’s primary aim, through his bequest of 1919, was to foster portraiture, as well as support artists, and perpetuate the memory of great Australians. This years exhibition continues to provoke controversies, and whilst its not one of its better years, the Archibald Prize still does more than any other single event to stimulate and sustain public interest in the art of portrait painting in Australia – and worth a visit.