The Archibald Prize is Australia's most prestigious portraiture award.

History

The Archibald Prize was created in 1921 at the bequest of Jules Francois Archibald (d. 1919), the founding editor of the Australian political magazine The Bulletin. Archibald believed that it was important for a nation as young as Australia to have a strong sense of national identity, and he decided to encourage this through a portraiture prize. The prize was to achieve three key aims: to promote portraiture, encourage Australian artists and memorialize prominent Australians. To do this, Archibald dictated that the subject and the artist must both be Australian residents. "The portrait," he wrote, should be "preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in Art, Letters, Science or Politics." The Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales award the prize annually.

Since its inception, the Archibald Prize has risen to popularity, particularly in its home state of New South Wales. The Prize receives great popularity and the short-listed works are exhibited in major Australian galleries across the nation. The prominence of the Prize was increased by the introduction of a People's Choice Award in 1988. Members of the public are invited to view the short-listed works and vote for their favourite. The People's Award is a good reflection of public sentiment, but it rarely coincides with the official award. Lastly, entrants may win the Packing Room Prize, first awarded in 1991, which is nominated by the "burly blokes" who handle the packing and hanging of the artworks.

Modern art has something of a bad rap; you get the feeling it's all about screaming obscenities at old people while throwing paint-covered babies at a canvas. The Archibald Prize does a lot to kindle the public's interest in modern artists. This has risen to a point where, in 2001, a man bought Adam Cullen's Prize-winning Portrait of David Wenham and hung it in his Balmain home. When the house was listed for sale, the owner ensured that the picture featured prominently in the real estate photographs - bringing a steady stream of people through his house.

The Rules

To enter the Archibald Prize, the artist must be an Australian resident (for at least 12 months prior to the closing date). The subject must be a prominent Australian, and they must sit for the portrait at least once. The portrait itself may be created from oil, water color and mixed media - these are the only acceptable media. Caricatures are accepted. There is no size restriction and the artwork may be in as many pieces as the artist wishes, so live it large.

Entries are accepted for a week in May and each artist may submit no more than two works. The Prize itself is awarded in June; $35,000 to the winner and $2,500 for the People's Choice Award. The announcement is made in conjunction with the Wynne Prize for Landscapes, the Sir John Sulman Prize and the Dobell Prize for Drawing.

How to Win the Archibald Prize

  1. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Find out when entries close, and be prepared to finish the artwork well in advance. Many artworks are sent to the gallery with wet paint on the canvas, and you'll have no one to blame but yourself if your fine cariacature of Steve Irwin ends up looking like an impressionist tree.

  2. Choose your subject carefully. Although no one likes to admit it, roughly half of the award is given for topical content. Select a subject who has featured prominently in the year's events. If you can choose a subject that is controversial or highly influential, half the battle is won. Aim to incite discussion! Look for someone that people can talk about over coffee. "That John Burgess, what a great influence he's had on Australian television!"

    For bonus points, pick someone old or living dangerously; your work will get more recognition if the subject dies before the Prize is awarded. Artist Geoffrey Dyer found himself in this situation when his subject, World War I veteran Alec Campbell, died several weeks before the announcement of the 2002 prize.

  3. Show the subject in an interesting light. Art should challenge, surprise, intrigue. Your portrayal of the subject should seize the audience's attention. Give the audience something to think about.

  4. Art is fine, but people know what they like. It's important to use styles and techniques that reflect the subject's personality, but bear in mind that the Trustees show a conservative bent. If you want to win, your subject should be recognisable. In 1943, William Dobell's controversial painting of Joshua Smith was so distorted and abstract that viewers argued it was not a portrait. Dobell retained the prize, but not without a surfeit of nattering art critics.

  5. Pay the fee. The entry fee is $30 and you must pay it, even if you are an impoverished artist in the traditional manner.

Winners and Subjects

Australia's most prominent artists have submitted their work to the Archibald Prize, and many have won: among their illustrious number, Brett Whiteley (who won in 1976 and 78), Judy Cassab, Clifton Pugh and William Dobell (who won in 1943, 48 and 59). Subjects have included poet Banjo Patterson, Margaret Olley, Albert Namatjira, Patrick White, Lloyd Rees, Gough Whitlam, Paul Keating, John Bell, Philip Adams and Dorothy Hewett.

The 2004 Archibald Prize was won by Craig Ruddy for his portrait of David Gulpilil, titled David Gulpilil, Two Worlds. The 2004 Packing Room Prize was won by Evert Ploeg's painting of journalist Jana Wendt. The picture is soft and realistic with pale brown tones. Ploeg first entered the Archibald Prize in 1997 with a controversial portrait of the lovable ABC children's characters Bananas in Pyjamas.

The 2005 Packing Room Prize was won by Jason Benjamin's portrait of Australian actor Bill Hunter titled Staring Down the Past. Benjamin was a finalist last year with his portrait of artist John Olsen, who is, incidentally, a finalist this year with a self-protrait.

The 2005 Archibald Prize will be announced on Friday, 30 April at 12 noon (AEST).


Primary source: The Art Gallery of New South Wales, http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au
and http://www.thearchibaldprize.com.au/history/controversy

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