Posts Tagged ‘Blake Prize


Day 305: Them and Us, by Abdul Abdullah

Abdul Abdullah 2011

Day 305: Them and Us, by Abdul Abdullah

Last night I attended a lecture by Rosemary Crumlin, OAM, on the history of the Blake Prize for Religious Art, held in conjunction with the recent publication of Crumlin’s The Blake Book: Art, Religion, and Spirituality in Australia [Melbourne: Macmillan, 2010]. The Blake Prize holds a special significance for Crumlin, who is an ordained nun, with a personal interest in religious art that has expressed itself over the years in books and articles on the subject, as well as a number of exhibitions, the most monumental of which is arguably Beyond Belief, staged at the NGV in 1998. Furthermore, Crumlin had attended almost all Blake Prize exhibitions; was a finalist in a number of them; and dedicated her earlier thesis to the history of the first 25 years of the Prize. The book, which surveys 60 years of the Blake Prize history, is therefore very much a continuation and culmination of her life-long interest and association with the Prize.

The lecture was interesting inasmuch as it contained innumerable personal insights into Crumlin’s own impressions of the Prize; her thoughts on its various winners and runners-up; as well as personal relationships that had developed between the writer and the artists both during her involvement in the Prize and in the course of her research of the earlier thesis and the current volume.

The book itself is a treat to behold. Crumlin has taken an almost encyclopaedic approach to this publication in her aim to illustrate and provide authoritative insights to the sixty winning works from 1951 to 2010 by such artists as Justin O’Brien, Frank Hinder, Donald Friend, Eric Smith, Stan Rapotec, Leonard French, Roger Kemp, Ken Whisson, Alan Oldfield, Warren Breninger, Rosemary Valadon, George Gittoes, John Davis, Hilarie Mais, Euan Macleod, Leonard Brown, and numerous others. The images of winning pieces are frequently accompanied within the pages of the book by related works within the oeuvre of the respective artists, showing the depth of interest and involvement in their exploration of religious subject matter.

The lavishly illustrated fold-out pages feature works by some of the finalists from various years. Together with the winning pieces, they provide a most valuable insight into the gradually changing face of the Blake Prize for Religious Art, resulting from the timely, fitting, and increasingly visible presence of works by artists from diverse religious backgrounds (such as Abdul Abdullah’s Them and Us, winner of the MUA Human Justice Prize of the 2011 Blake Prize exhibition). /

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


The Blake Prize 2011 – Part II

BP 2010 Mary TonkinSaturday, 23 April 2011 

The Blake Prize 2011 – Part II 

As discussed in the previous post, the inclusion of random artworks with very tenuous connections to religious subject matter devalues the nature of the Blake Prize as an award for religious art, and dilutes its message and directive.

Landscape artists are among the ‘worst’ culprits in this sense. We all have a spiritual experience when we commune with nature; but even the least artistically-aware among us know the difference between a work of art on a religious subject matter and a landscape painting. For example, I personally admire works by Mary Tonkin, but I question the validity of including her painting as a finalist in the prize, for it is no different to the works that are currently on display at the Australian Galleries. Same comment applies to the entries by Martin King; Janine Mackintosh; or Kate Briscoe.

BO 2010 Chris O'DohertyI wish to see more contemporary interpretations of the Old and New Testaments, like those in the works by Robert Dickerson and Christopher O’Doherty; more interpretations of the lives of the Saints such as those by Andrew Mezei and Peter Neilson; or such truly inspiring and meditative installations like those by Janine Whitling and Heather Elyard. As I mentioned above, it is great to see works by Indigenous artists included; but where are representations of other religions from the Middle East, Asia, andSouth-East Asia, who all have rich and diverse iconographic traditions? Last but not least, where are any depictions of Australian or international religious leaders – or does the prize specifically proscribe the inclusion of portraits of the very people who ensure the survival and perpetuation of religion and spirituality?

BP 2010 Janine Whitling

One of the biggest problems that I see with this Prize is its pointlessness. It only encourages creation of religious art (or pretending that you make some) for the sole purpose of enticing works into the competition with a promise of a cash award. There is no life for religious artworks beyond the prize, and that’s perhaps one of the biggest reasons why so many artists eschew the challenge of creating an artwork especially for the Blake.

BP 2010 Andrei MezeiWhen we consider portrait prizes, such as Archibald, Moran, or others, chances are paintings that were created especially for these exhibitions (and many are) might be acquired by national and state institutions, or by the sitters, their families and friends, or crazed and cashed-up fans. Landscape, still-life, and general art prizes have likewise a broader appeal with a likelihood of the works by winners or finalists being acquired by public and institutions, or, in the case of an acquisitive award, even by the prize-giving entity itself (i.e. Doug Moran, Arthur Guy, Savage Club, etc).

BP 2010 Cath BraidWhen it comes to religious art, we may have to think back to the nineteenth-century France, where a revival of religious art was experienced between 1830s and 1870s, precisely because the government offered a wide support for religious painting and sculpture, and spent substantial amounts of money on acquiring religious artworks either from the annual Salon or directly from artists’ studios, which were then placed with a religious institution (unless specifically acquired for a public collection).

I pray someone would prove me wrong, but there is no such program in existence inAustralia. Furthermore, religious institutions and places of worship are very unlikely to acquire anything from exhibitions like these, filled with half-hearted transmutations on the subject of religion (though they do commission ‘proper’ works on religious subject matter from artists like this year’s winner, Leonard Brown, or stained-glass artist and sculptor Janusz Kuzbicki).

BP 2010 Paul JacksonSo, once again, what is the purpose of the Blake Prize, in its current form, apart from a self-serving and self-perpetuating exercise that is not being treated seriously and with due respect by the artists who submit their works to it, or by the judges who seem to accept so blindly and indiscriminately anything that is thrown their way – as the current exhibition of the finalists shows?

[© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg 2011. This article is copyright, but the full or partial use is WELCOME with the full and proper acknowledgment]


The Blake Prize 2010 – Part I

Blake Prize 2010 Installation 2

Friday, 22 April 2011 

The Blake Prize 2010 – Part I

And now something just in time for Easter…

A dear friend of mine was closely involved with the Melbourne leg of the 2010 Blake Prize Finalists’ exhibition, which was appropriately staged at the Toorak Uniting Church, in Toorak Road, Toorak. Appropriately, because the Blake Society awards prizes for religious art, and what a better place to stage a show of its finalists than in the context of an actual place of worship.

I must confess that this was the first time that I actually saw the Blake Prize and examined in detail works of its finalists. Don’t get me wrong, I have been aware of the Prize for a very long time. It is an important event in the annals of Australian art, and over the years its prizes had been awarded to such worthy recipients as Justin O’Brien, Leonard French, Stan Rapotec, John Coburn, and numerous other luminaries of Australian art, for whom religion – or at the very least religious inspiration – was an integral part and subject matter of their oeuvre.

BP2010 Leonard BrownI privately rejoiced the fact that its 2010 winner is Leonard Brown, who is another worthy recipient. He is a lay Orthodox priest; and his professional painting practice includes icon painting, superbly executed in a traditional Russian style. However, his contemporary art practice is best described as conceptual and textural minimalism; titles of his works are invariably derived from theological texts and liturgical hymns; and once you get the brevity of his aesthetics, combined with the intense spirituality that guides his works, the world of his art reveals itself. The winning work, If you put your ear close, you’ll hear it breathing, is very much representative of his works that are usually exhibited at the Charles Nodrum Gallery here in Melbourne, or elsewhere in Australia.

I can perhaps think of only few other artists in the exhibition, who continuously explore religious subject matter in their works. This includes Heather Elyard, who decorated the walls of the Jewish Museum of Australia, and who is represented in the exhibition by an installation, Archive of Signs; the octogenarian Franz Kempf is perhaps another one. It is also interesting to observe the presence in the finalists’ exhibition of paintings by Aboriginal artists, such as Elizabeth Kunoth Kngwarray, Genevieve Kemarr Loy, and Cowboy Loy Pwerl, for their works are indeed a reflection and interpretation of their traditional mythological lore. The fact that the Blake Prize is becoming an all-inclusive award irrespective of religious leanings is demonstrated by the presence of works by Arabic artists, such Rolla Khadduri and Cath Braid’s My Prayer is…

BP 2010 Genevieve Loy

However, I started noticing with an increasing concern the presence in the exhibition of works by the artists who do not usually paint on religious subject matter; and who have not deviated at all from their usual style or manner of painting. They simply took any odd work from their studio, whacked a religiously-seemed subtitle onto it – and suddenly it’s a religious painting worthy of being entered into a religious art award. In my opinion, this devaluates the prize, and dilutes its message and directive.

… to be continued…

[© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg 2011. This article is copyright, but the full or partial use is WELCOME with the full and proper acknowledgment]

Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg

August 2020


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