The prestigious and often controversial Archibald Prize is on the lips of all Sydney art aficionados at this time of year. With rising anticipation, I climbed the steps of the Art Gallery of NSW and passed by the rope to view the works of the 43 finalists, chosen from 822 entries. The artists, their partners, and their subjects were all gathered to hear the winner and receive either congratulations or condolences – hopefully, the former.
The rules of the Archibald Prize specify that the subject of the portrait should be someone distinguished in arts, letters, science, or politics. It was amusing, then, as I wandered past the artworks, to note that more than a few of its entrants had submitted pictures of themselves. Of course, ego isn’t necessarily behind this phenomenon: painting a self-portrait comes with a distinct advantage, in that the sitter is always on tap.
When David Gonski, president of the Gallery’s Board of Trustees, took the stand to reveal the winner, he gave us a brief insight into the judging process. That very morning, the trustees, who judge the prize, had whittled their list of favourites down to two. Back and forth the judges had walked between the two main contenders, carefully deliberating before making their final decision.
The $100,000 prize ultimately went to Sydney-based contemporary artist Mitch Cairns, who submitted a colourful rendering of his wife, fellow artist Agatha Goethe-Snape. A clever choice of subject: plenty of proximity to the sitter, but without the problems of subjectivity inherent to self-portraiture.
Personally, I felt as though runner-up Jun Chen’s complex, thoughtful portrait of former gallery owner, Ray Hughes, was the most powerful in the competition, and just as deserving of a win. But I don’t envy the judges, having to choose. Overall, the quality of the paintings in this year’s Archibald seemed higher than usual. This year’s prize showcased an impressive diversity of styles and subjects. My picks, apart from Chen’s work, were Anh Do’s portrayal of actor Jack Charles, Loribelle Spirovski’s depiction of the chiselled face of Bell Shakespeare founder, John Bell, and Andrew Lloyd Greensmith’s sensitive rendering of 102-year-old dancer and choreographer, Eileen Kramer.
When you visit, be sure to cast a vote for your favourite portrait in the ANZ People’s Choice award, and view the Young Archie finalists, hung on the wall directly outside the main exhibition area.
– Elizabeth Foster
Elizabeth Foster is a fiction writer who locks herself up all day in her study, but lets herself out on occasion to experience all that Sydney has to offer! You can find her writerly musings at elizabethfoster.com.au.
View the Archibald Prize from 29 July–22 October 2017 at the Art Gallery of NSW. Purchase tickets here. The Archibald Prize exhibition will also tour in country NSW and Victoria at key regional galleries from October onwards. See here for dates.