Sydneysiders love their Archibald and as in past years the crowds down at the Art Gallery of NSW are huge; it’s certainly a massive attraction heralding the start of autumn. But what’s missing this year is any kind of buzz – the show is at best a bit ordinary.
In this the 92nd year there are fewer finalists down to 38,although there were 868 entries, and some of the more well-known subjects include Anthony Mundine, Asher Keddie, Bille Brown, Ken Done and Naomi Watts and for the first time (for me anyway) not a Politian to be seen.
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. 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.
The trend of past years seems to continue with mainly two kinds of work, the huge, over oiled type or the totally photogenic. Mind you this year most of the finalists have made use of a full colour palate – a nice change over those many sepia pencil portraits of the last few years.
The winner is full of colour and seemed poplar amongst the art gallery crowd the day I visited, although it seemed to lack soul for me. Del Kathryn Barton’s decorative, highly detailed painting of Hugo Weaving is a vibrant and joyous portrait – combining traditional painting techniques with contemporary design. This is her fourth time in the Archibald Prize which she won in 2008 with a portrait of herself with her two children.
The portrait of Tara Moss was greeted with lots more excitement by the crowd and it was hard to get up close and have a moment with her. She was seemingly falling off the wall at you. This was the 2013 Packing Room Prize winner which is adjudicated by the Gallery’s storeman Steve Peters. It’s painted by Mathew Lynn who has been a finalist in the Archibald Prize on 12 previous occasions. He has been a runner-up twice and has also been voted People’s Choice.
Tara Moss is a novelist, television presenter, journalist and former model. Since 1999 she has written nine best-selling novels, which have been published in 18 countries in 12 languages. A more traditional portrait than most on show here, it’s caught its subject in a sense of thinking man’s glamour and sex appeal. Mr Lynn may well pick up a second People’s choice.
Alexander McKenzie’s wonderful emotive study of Toni Collette was the one of two show stoppers for me. McKenzie is predominantly a landscape painter known for his luminous paintings which recall the techniques of the 15th-century Dutch old masters, so it’s a portrait that gives you a sense of the traditional but with a very now feel. It references interesting symbolism for an actor, being all at sea in a small boat, and Ms Collette’s eyes are truly captivating – I really liked this one, and it got my People’s Choice nod.
The other portrait that grabbed me was of Venus Vamp called ‘Anything goes’ by Wendy Sharpe. Venus Vamp is a burlesque performer and producer who has been called ‘Sydney’s dark princess of burlesque’ and the painting, which is so powerful, draws you into that world – you can imagine the performance unfolding. It was the one painting I wanted to return to see again before leaving.
The Archibald Prize shows till 2 June at AGNSW before an extensive regional gallery tour and I know many people look forward to seeing it each year. This year it’s a show that seems to be free of the usual hullabaloos, and whilst 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.