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The Archibald Prize for Portraiture 2012 [Part I]

Adam Cullen Archibald 2012Friday, 6 July 2012

The Archibald Prize for Portraiture 2012 [Part I]

Last weekend I braved the elements and the suburban traffic, and drove to Yarra Valley to view the Archibald Prize for Portraiture 2012 on its Victorian leg of the tour at the Tarrawarra Museum of Art. There is little that remains to be said about this Prize that has not been expressed already in the media and privately when it premiered earlier this year in Sydney. I am afraid I have to agree about the pervading mediocrity that dominates the exhibition. I am aware that the judging panel includes some of the most esteemed names in Australian art, and I am therefore baffled by the choices they continue making as if the controversy, in-jokes, and the ensuing public debate – rather than presenting a sophisticated display that reflects the best in contemporary Australian portraiture – is on their agenda.

Milson Crowley Archibald 2012First and foremost, it is difficult to speak objectively about the 2012 Archibald Portrait Prize overall, for at least half a dozen of the country’s premier artists who excel in the genre of portraiture, are not even in it. Secondly, one has to bear in mind, that the choice of the artists and their sitters has become extremely politicised, and that the identity and the celebrity status of the sitters has overtaken the aesthetic and artistic qualities of their representations within the Archibald competition a long time ago. It is truly as if the trustees continuously mistake judging a national portrait prize for browsing tabloid magazine stands, and choose the portraits on the basis of a recognisable face rather than on their universal and overarching qualities as a work of art.

Ryan Cullen Archibald 2012

This is perhaps the only explanation for the recurring atrocities on the Archibald walls that claim to be portraits; many but a pitiful waste of canvas. Nothing recommends these works to the viewers’ eye than the supposed celebrity status of their sitters. Furthermore, more often than not, the only reason for them being chosen as a finalist within this exhibition is the fact that either the artist or the sitter (or both) more often than not are based in Sydney, or, at the very least, in New South Wales. This is true of the majority of the paintings in this exhibition.

Egan Blackman Archibald 2012Sadly this results in the sheer laziness by a number of certain artists, who over the years have learned only too well how to best exploit the weaknesses and shortcomings of the Archibald Prize as the institution. A number of them no longer bother to extend themselves beyond merely putting a face on canvas. Artists like Adam Chang, Luke Cornish, Nigel Milson, Raeline Sharp, and several others are so certain that the people in their portraits will be recognised, they do not even bother providing us with any further narrative information about their models. A well-painted head is acceptable in a private setting, where the audience for the portrait does not extend beyond the intimate circle of the sitter. But when placed on public display, a mere likeness arguably becomes the lowest grade of portraiture. But then perhaps these artists simply do not know how to communicate in a visual language anything beyond the mere representation of a human face.

Giacco Blackman 2011I mean, truly, what is the point of Melissa Egan’s portrait of Charles Blackman (illustrated above right) other than the most feeble and blatantly obvious attempt to replicate last year’s success of Ben Quilty’s portrait of Margaret Olley by painting another esteemed Sydney-based artist, whose portrait (by Jon Molvig) had also won an Archibald on a previous occasion (1966). Those who were privileged to witness Francis Giacco’s portrait of the same artist that was briefly on view at the Australian Galleries in July last year (illustrated left) would be only too aware of the possibilities of portraiture in the hands of a truly skilful and imaginative artist!

Fortunately, the exhibition clearly shows that there are artists in Australia who truly can paint, and who are truly able and know how to communicate to the viewer their ideas, their narratives, and biographical information about their sitters through the medium and visual language of art. One only has to look at portraits (and self-portraits) by Monika Behrens, Marcus Callum, Vincent Fantauzzo, Jiawei Shen, Tim Storrier, and a small hand-full of others.

[ … to be continued … ]

[© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg 2012; where applicable, images are courtesy of the artists and their galleries.]

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3 Responses to “The Archibald Prize for Portraiture 2012 [Part I]”


  1. July 6, 2012 at 8:39 am

    Thanks for your post. Was considering driving down to Healesville to see (like I did last year).
    Will give it a wide berth. cheers. Maybe Melbourne could have a similar portrait prize competition and to honour Sydney, call it the ‘Itchy Ball’.


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