The Archibald Prize: Contenders, Ghosts and Sacrificial Lambs

Each year when The Archibald Prize emerges on the art calendar, one anticipates the usual controversies that have haunted it across time. It’s as if there is a call for all to gather at the altar and incite anger and displeasure at artworks that dare to break dubious rules, supposedly sacred – rules which are all too often arbitrary, and have been established by artists and critics motivated by conservatism, radicalism or just sheer envy. Add to this the views from members of the public who often have very little knowledge or even interest in art.
These controversies entail: a revision of rules; a clarification of what a portrait is( that is, whether the portrait must be done from an actual sitting of a person/subject rather than based on a photograph); whether a work in charcoal characterises the preferred use of materials; and whether the work is too subversive for what has become a prize opened up to a viewing in the public realm. The artworks are inevitably tied up with the history of the award as much with the history of art itself. Now entailing a prize of $75,000 (which began in 1921 at £400), this event receives intensive media coverage, communicated internationally by social networks and the internet. The art community have a vested interest in ‘getting it right’. The media hopes that it gets it ‘wrong’.

The most notorious of controversies was in 1943 when William Dobell’s portrait of Joshua Smith was deemed a caricature rather than a portrait. This happened when modernism with its varied forms of abstraction had become the preferred means by which the world was to be re-discovered and re-presented. It is inevitable that any viewer of the works will bring to it their current views of what art is or should be. I, no doubt, will bring my own definitions of taste and level of training to a selection of very different artworks that reflect current trends and preferences. These artworks are: Vincent Fantauzzo’s Kimbra (the build up); Ben Quilty’s Captain S After Afghanistan and Michael Peck’s Self Portrait in the image of my Son. I’ve chosen these because they use very different materials, engage in different styles and are informed by personal narratives unlike each other’s: a hyperreal though painterly portrait; a painting exhibiting the brutality of war, and a self portrait enacted within the face of a child.

Vincent Fantauzzo is well known to the public primarily due to his portrait of Heath Ledger and child actor Brendan Walters which received the People’s Choice Award in 2008 and 2009 respectively. Similarly his choice of celebrity as a subject, Matt Moran, was not without impact and contributed, perhaps, to his receiving the Packing Room prize in recent times. Fantauzzo knows what people want to see; he knows what drives the current obsession with celebrities. His painting for this year’s competition is of the New Zealand singer Kimbra whom he admires for the work she does for people afflicted by drug addiction as much as for her talent as a singer. It is clear that this painting engages with a narrative which often characterises his work. He has a theatrical eye for placing his subjects in environments that contribute to their allure.

Fantauzzo titled the piece Kimbra (the build up), the bracketed part of the title referring to Kimbra’s favourite song from her youth. The subject is seated on a bed in a room ablaze with orange lighting with a background of shadows. The eye is drawn to Kimbra, beautiful in a red silk dress with the folds exquisitely rendered. The subject has experienced something that sends her into a reverie. That this picture of her in a state of contemplation is not one dictated by calmness is shown in the way she holds herself – one arm in a kind of comforting embrace of herself and the other clutching her knee indicating that whatever has happened or is about to happen is frightening in some way. These gestures of his subject are mirrored in the figure on an antique clock that sits on the bedside table. It is night and the curtains are bright blue reflecting a collision between the dark outside and the lighting within. This portrait tells a tale about his view of this person – her beauty, her complexity and her potential for engaging with both the light and the darkness of living. Where, one may ask, does this painting sit in relation to the history of art? It is at the opposite end to that of abstraction and yet although connecting with old figurative paintings from the realist period, it is also beyond such definition given its theatrical elements, its resonating symbols and, upon close inspection, its painterly style.

The Archibald Art Prize in 1942 was given to William Dargie for a painting done when he was the official war artist during World War II in Syria. That the painting was underwater for a period of time when the ship bringing it back to Australia sank is just another of those quirky stories associated with the Archibald Prize. It would indeed be historically significant if Ben Quilty’s portrait Captain S After Afghanistan won this year. Quilty painted his work when on a tour of duty as a war artist in Afghanistan. This stunning painting is in my view a powerful contender. This is a painting which is difficult to turn away from even though its content represents all that we prefer not to confront about war. When walking through war museums or war memorials one notices, particularly in Australia, that mostly the art that is exhibited is dedicated to commemoration – to honour and acclaim for the courage of soldiers. This artwork certainly has within its scope a great dignity but it is primarily stark, showing the sheer horror of death on the battlefield. The figure of a dead soldier is Christ-like in its demeanour; the pose was chosen by the subject. The soldier is painted naked emphasising physical strength but also using the skin as a canvas to display the fragility of a body under siege. Quilty won the National Portrait Prize in 2009, won the Archibald in 2011 with his portrait of Margaret Olley and has won the Doug Moran Portrait Prize. He has entered the competition seven times.

Michael Peck’s Self-Portrait in the Image of my Son has a double edge for the painter. The painting is of his son dressed in military helmet and goggles from his grandfather’s war. Three generations are represented here, marking an historical reference across time. Peck’s depiction of his son includes himself painting the portrait, mirrored in the glasses. Criticised by a critic as being a little obvious and even kitsch, I would argue that engaging with oneself as an artist representing process is nostalgic and quite intentionally draws on this trope from modernism. Peck is a master of nostalgia; his artwork looks back, mesmerising his ‘character’ in a dream-like zone of memory and mystique. He is fascinated with clothes and artifacts from the past and has succeeded in drawing his audiences back in time as he simultaneously deals with present day alienation. This painting, unlike the sepia tones of his earlier work, is composed of warm reds and oranges. Wordsworth famously suggested ‘the Child is father of the Man’; Peck inverts this and deals with the notion that in the face of his child he sees his past and it is one he wants to preserve. The innocence of the young boy draped in the armour of war makes further reference to our own global wars where children are often the victims. Peck was a finalist in the 2010 Dobell Drawing Prize, the 2005 Metro Prize and the 2002 City of Hobart Prize. In 1998 he was the winner of the National Gallery of Victoria’s Trustees award.

Looking at these artworks shows just some of the diversity of approaches from those selected as finalists. These artists are all examples of how their generation sees its world anew, and although in touch with the art that precedes them, which is folded into their work, they exude a unique and fresh contemporary viewpoint.