Few Australian art competitions rival the Archibald Prize when it comes to prestige.
Australia’s premiere portrait prize is just as loved in 2023 as it was when it launched in 1921, following a bequest from former Art Gallery of New South Wales trustee and newspaper founder JF Archibald, and now Canberrans have a chance to see a diverse slice of these portraits in their collective glory.
Archie 100: A Century of the Archibald Prize opens today at the National Portrait Gallery, offering visitors a glimpse into the psyche of Australian artists across the last 100 years.
“When we look at early portraits of subjects in the Archibald Prize, we see a largely white population,” explains Natalie Wilson, curator of Archie 100 and Curator of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of NSW.
“The subjects are mostly male, and the portraits are painted mostly by Australian male artists. As the century has evolved, our society has become more multicultural, more embracing of difference. We see portraiture changing not only because more women artists have been celebrated but also their subjects come from the diverse society that we live in.”
“So, we’re seeing the diversity of portraiture over 100 years – everything from the academic realism of the 1920s through to cubism of the 1930s right through to the big photorealist, hyper-real portraits of the 1970s and the diversity of what’s happening today.”
Naturally, there are celebrity portraits in the mix, such as Del Kathryn Barton’s 2011 portrait of Cate Blanchett and Wes Walters’ 1983 portrait of a reclining Molly Meldrum. However, Natalie says the value of Archie 100 as an exhibition might lie in its ability to connect us to people after the pandemic.
“Archie 100 opened in 2021 in Sydney, but unfortunately after three weeks, it closed due to COVID lockdowns. I believe that you are able to connect with people again through an exhibition like Archie 100. People have been so connected to their devices but by seeing all of these portraits, you realise there is something for everyone.”
Of course, the Archibald hasn’t been without controversy throughout its long history, including an artistic stoush that knocked World War II off the front page of newspapers in 1943.
“The most controversial portrait was the 1943 Archibald Prize which was awarded to William Dobell for his portrait of fellow artist Joshua Smith,” explains Natalie. “That particular portrait is not in the exhibition because it was all but destroyed in a fire in the 1950s, but the story about the controversy is that two artists took Dobell and the Art Gallery of New South Wales to court because they believe the work was not a portrait, it was a caricature.”
“There was a court case that totally destroyed the relationship between Dobell and Smith and it knocked the war off newspapers because people were so engaged. Today we tell this story through two portraits that were also part of the 1943 prize – Dobell’s Billy Boy from the Australian War Memorial collection and Smith’s own portrait of Dame Mary Gilmore, which was the runner-up that year.”
Adding that “controversy has always courted the Archibald Prize”, Natalie points to WB McInnes’ demure portrait Miss Collins.
“We look at this portrait today and say, ‘Why was it controversial?’. Well, in 1924 it was because it wasn’t of a person who was deemed ‘distinguished’ enough. It was of a society woman who lived in Melbourne, and she wasn’t considered to be worthy of an Archibald portrait.”
“Of course, today, people from all walks of life can be the subject of an Archibald portrait and that’s what’s so wonderful about this exhibition – we can look back into the past and see how we have changed as a society.”
Understandably, Natalie finds it hard to pick a personal favourite from the expansive exhibition, but says one key highlight was uncovering the mysterious subject of Grace Crowley’s Miss M Roberts portrait from the 1933 Archibald Prize (a professional artists’ model named Marjorie Roberts, it turns out) during research for Archie 100.
However, there are even more mysteries the general public could help solve.
“There have been more than 6,000 portraits [in the Archibald] and there are more than 4,000 that we haven’t found, so we encourage people to contact us if they’ve got a portrait hanging on the wall or underneath a bed that they think might be an Archibald portrait.”
“We can help investigate it for them and add to our growing online prizes archive where people can explore even more about the Archibald Prize.”
Think you have a lost Archie? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
What: Archie 100: A Century of the Archibald Prize
When: Until Sunday 28 January 2024
Where: National Portrait Gallery
Feature image: Natasha Bieniek, Wendy Whiteley 2016, oil on wood, 13.5 x 18.5 cm; frame 34.5 x 32.5 x 3 cm. Courtesy of the artist (cropped). All imagery courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.