Australia’s most prestigious art prize, the Archibald Prize, is hitting a major milestone with its 100th anniversary this year.
High profile, eagerly anticipated and often controversial, the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Archibald Prize has become Australia’s favourite art award, and one of its most prestigious.
Awarded to the best portrait painting, it’s a who’s who of Australian culture, with subjects often including politicians, celebrities, sporting heroes, authors and artists.
Having presented a staggering century’s worth of these portraits since its inception in 1921, engaging art enthusiasts, and challenging the way we see ourselves and our society, the Art Gallery of NSW has hit the road with the blockbuster exhibition, Archie 100: A Century of the Archibald Prize.
In a major coup for the region, the beloved Geelong Gallery has the honour of being the only Victorian venue to host the touring Archie 100 exhibition, following the successful presentation of the 2017 Archibald Prize and 2018 Archibald Prize.
100 years ago, the Archibald Prize was launched after Geelong-born JF Archibald, the editor of political magazine The Bulletin, left a bequest for an annual award to be administered by the trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Archibald hoped to support portraiture and the arts community via a monetary prize awarded to a depiction of a man or woman working in the arts, letters, science or politics. Since then, it’s become one of the country’s most prestigious art prizes, and now awards $100,000 prize money for the winning artist.
Now celebrating its 100th birthday in 2021, the Art Gallery of New South Wales has marked the occasion with an exhibition of 100 key works tracing its rich history.
“The Archibald Prize is the most popular prize portrait in Australia. It’s got such a rich history, it’s really part of Australian life and culture and the portraits are endlessly appealing because they reveal so much about who we are as people,” says Geelong Gallery senior curator Lisa Sullivan.
“Offering an opportunity to reflect on history, this exhibition celebrates people’s achievements, people’s character and qualities, the controversies and the commonplace, and honours the artists who have contributed to the prize as we see it today.”
Arranged thematically, rather than chronologically, the Archie 100 exhibition presents a diverse selection of some of the most memorable Archibald portraits from the last century.
Using 100 key portraits – both the triumphant and the thwarted – the exhibition explores the history of the prestigious portrait award, diving into controversies, important moments and identities, and societal changes from the past century, while also honouring the artists who have made the prize the most sought-after accolade in Australian art today.
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An opportunity to reflect on our shared history, Sullivan explains the works have been arranged into 12 thematic clusters by Natalie Wilson, exhibition curator at the Art Gallery of NSW, exploring some of the key moments in the evolution of the prize, from 1921 to today.
Themes within the exhibition include ‘How it all began’ which provides an overview of the prize and the man behind it, ‘Wielding the brush’ which looks at artists presenting self-portraits, ‘The intimacy of familiarity’ which looks at the people that are in the very close proximity (family, spouses etc.) of the artists, and ‘Artists by artists’ which looks at one of the most popular subjects in the Prize – portraits of other artists.
Further, the exhibition explores ‘Recasting the gaze’ which highlights the strong representation of female artists over the years and the significant contribution they’ve made to the Prize’s success, and of course, ‘The cult of Celebrity’, which looks at the film stars, rock stars, sporting heroes, comedians and more that have cast its spell on the Archibald Prize over the years.
“Celebrity culture seems to be a popular subject within the prize because we feel that we know celebrities and they’re identifiable; they’re very much part of popular culture,” Sullivan says.
“So, this section is a really interesting one where we see a range of different personalities over the years. Some of them are more familiar to us because they’re more recent celebrities and then others that are celebrities of their era, but perhaps not so familiar to some of us at all.”
The exhibition then looks to ‘Local Heroes and National Icons’, ‘War and its aftermath’ exploring works produced during the Second World War and its aftershock, ‘Courting Controversy’ which looks at some controversial aspects of the prize over the years, and ‘What lies beneath’, which explores the power of portraiture in unlocking and illuminating the inner workings of the subject and artists.
Rounding out the extravagant exhibition is ‘In polite company’ which looks at political and religious figures presented in the Prize like Bob Brown, Paul Keating and John Howard, before finishing with ‘The art world’, which explores the movers and shakers of Australia’s art world over the past century – the art critics, gallerists, collectors and patrons whose influence has shaped the way portraiture and the Prize is perceived.
“Across those 12 themes, what we get is a really diverse array of work and a broad cross-section of artists producing a wide range of artistic practice, offers an exciting glimpse into a specific moment in time and the key figures that have helped shape Australian life and culture.
“From the very early academic paintings that were quite dark and of the earliest years of the arch prize, to some more contemporary genres, you can see the changes in society through the different approaches that have been illustrated over the hundred years by artists from across Australia and New Zealand.”
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While less than 100 works make up the Archie 100, more than 6000 works were considered, sourced from the ANGSW’s own collection, as well libraries, galleries, museums and private collections in Australia and internationally. The gallery was also unable to track many of the portraits shown in the prize to date and put out a public appeal to find them.
Highlights of portraits selected for the Archie 100 include Vincent Namatjira’s 2018 self-portrait, presented two years before his win for depicting sporting hero Adam Goodes; John Bracks’ 1969 pink-jacketed take on Barry Humphries as alter ego Dame Edna Everage; The Huxleys by Sally Ross in 2018, Wes Walters’ 1983 take on Molly Meldrum, Kate Beynon’s 2010 self-portrait with guardian spirits, and Wendy Sharpe’s 1996 self-portrait posing as Diana of Erskineville.
Arriving in Geelong back in November, Archie 100 will be on show at the gallery over three months of summer, attracting art lovers, tourists and locals alike to our thriving regional city.
“It’s a real coup for the gallery and for Geelong more broadly to be presenting this show – and it’s the kind of show that I like to think has something for everyone in it,” Sullivan explains.
“It’s very different to the annual prize which is all about who’s part of our community and Australian life right now. This is a show that really represents a hundred years through a really diverse array of work, it’s a collection that sees people drawn to different portraits and different portrait styles.
“It’s been wonderful to see so many visitors in again,” she adds. “It’s what brings the gallery alive, and there have been so many visitors from Geelong and further afield. And hopefully, we’ll see a lot more visitors come over the summer.”
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Alongside the exhibition, the gallery will be presenting a comprehensive program of events and educational opportunities for the community to engage with artists and sitters alike.
Archie 100: A Century of the Archibald Prize is on at Geelong Gallery until February 20, 2022. Tickets are available now.