Saturday, March 27, 2010

Art: The Archibald and Dobell

The winner of the Archibald Prize has been announced, Sam Leach for a portrait of Tim Minchin. I personally find it a bit of a ho-hum painting but each to his own.

The Archibald is today regarded as the foremost portraiture prize in Australia (a $50,000 prize), although it is being rivalled by the Moran National Portrait Prize ($100,000 prize, the richest portrait prize in Australia and in the world).

As a digression, an artist, Roger Akinin, once saw a photo of me asleep on a couch with cats perched on me. Although I didn't know him, he asked to paint that image and for me to sit for him. I agreed and, whilst the portrait was submitted but not accepted as a finalist for the Archibald, it did make the final 5 for the 2000 Moran National Portrait Prize.

(Click on pics to enlarge)
Unlike the Moran, which simply requires that artists and subjects must be Australian citizens, the Archibald has more stringent conditions. Established under the Will of J F Archibald, the editor of the Bulletin, who died in 1919, the prize is awarded to “the best portrait, preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in Art, Letters, Science or Politics, painted by an artist resident in Australia during the 12 months preceding the date fixed by the Trustees for sending in the pictures."

Since the first award in 1921, the prize has not been without controversy:

- Until the 1940’s, prize winners showed the subject in traditional settings with the trappings of their field: bishops in gowns, academics in robes and so on. The emphasis was on tonal realism rather than portraits showing the personality and inner characteristics of the sitter. The debate over the nature of portraiture – whether it is about accurately depicting the subject or about revealing character – has continued to the present.

- In 1934 Henry Hanks submitted a self portrait of himself unemployed and looking down and out. He was crticised in that the terms of the award were for a “distinguished” man or woman.

- In 1975 John Bloomfield carried off the prize with a large portrait of Tim Burstall, but was subsequently disqualified for having painted from a photograph without having met his subject. Bloomfield threatened legal action in 1981 over that year’s winning portrait of Rudy Komon by Eric Smith looking very much like a photograph of Komon. In 1983 Bloomfield did take legal action, seeking to have his 1975 award reinstated but he lost the case,

- Brett Whitely’s 1976 prize winner, Self Portrait in the Studio, was controversial in depicting a large expanse of blue studio with only a small face reflected in a mirror.

- In 1997 Evert Ploeg’s painting of Bananas in Pyjamas was held to be ineligible by the trustees because it was not a painting of a person.

- Craig Ruddy’s 2004 portrait of David Gulpilil, which had won both the main prize and the Peoples’ Choice prize, was challenged in court as being a charcoal sketch rather than a painting. The court upheld the artist.

The issue of realistic depiction v character revelation, and the use of courts and judges to determine artistic merit, reached a  high point in respect of the 1943 winning portrait by Sir William Dobell (1899-1970) of his friend Joshua Smith.

Smith, also an artist, had worked with Dobell in the Civil Construction Corps in the early years of the war, painting camouflage on aircraft hangers and storage sheds. The Archibald award to Dobell was the first break with convention in the history of the prize. The morning after the award was announced, Smith’s parents pleaded that he not exhibit the work and Smith refused to speak to him, such was their hostility towards the depiction of the subject. With public hostility mounting and newspaper cartoonists having a field day, two Royal Art Society members, Joseph Wolinski and Mary Edwards, took legal action against Dobell and the Trustees. The basis of their challenge was that the portrait Joshua Smith was 'a distorted and caricatured form' and therefore not a portrait.

Dobell sought to explain his intention, motivation and technique:
“... trying to create something, instead of copying something. To me, a sincere artist is not one who makes a faithful attempt to put on canvas what is in front of him, but one who tries to create something which is living in itself, regardless of its subject. So long as people expect paintings to be simply coloured photographs they get no individuality and in the case of portraits, no characterisation. The real artist is striving to depict his subject's character and to stress the caricature, but at least it is art which is alive.”
The case was widely reported and everyone had an opinion. The issue became one of the merits of Modernism.

The rift in the friendship between Dobell and Smith was made worse by the nature of Dobell’s defence. He maintained that the exaggeration of Smith’s facial features was not large and that in real life Smith was gangly, awkward and had long arms.

The court found in favour of Dobell but both he and Smith sustained serious impacts upon their health as a result of the case. The adverse publicity and numerous abusive letters from strangers caused Dobell to develop severe dermatitis and to have a nervous breakdown. He retreated to Wangi Wangi and did not paint for a period.. He gradually returned to painting and eventually won two more Archibalds. His portrait of Dame Mary Gilmore (not an Archibald winner) is featured in the background on the $10 note.

Joshua Smith (1905-1995) in 1990 said of the portrait that it was a "curse, a phantom that haunts me. It has torn at me every day of my life. I've tried to bury it inside me in the hope it would die, but it never does.” He was especially bitter that the portrait had focused attention away from his own works.

And what of the portrait? Smith’s parents sought to buy it from Dobell but he declined to sell it to them, fearing they might destroy it. Instead he sold it to Sir Edward Hayward. In 1958 a fire in Sir Edward’s house in Adelaide almost destroyed the painting. In 1969 it was restored but reports are that the vibrancy and atmospheric quality have been lost, so much so that it is no longer considered an original work.

“I never intended to be a portrait painter. It was after the Joshua Smith painting that people began asking me to do portraits but I never wanted to be commissioned to paint portraits. I like to choose my own subject and make a character study from it.”
 - William Dobell


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