The Art of the Archibald Prize


Jules François Archibald (left) with famous Australian poet Henry Lawson.

More contentious than all our other art exhibitions put together, the Archibald is back in 2017.

It’s here, it’s big, it’s loud, and it will be controversial – again. I’m beginning to wonder if the art in the Archibald actually means anything. The artists reluctantly do it, the critics hate it, and most people love to pull it apart. So where does that leave those of us who go to this exhibition that are simply art lovers? Usually feeling a bit lost and overwhelmed by the hype that surrounds this thing that is the Archibald Prize.

Those of you who may not know, here in Australia we have a thing called the Archibald portrait prize. It was set up by Jules François Archibald. 14 January 1856 – 10 September 1919. And, it’s been running for almost 100 years. It is “regarded as the most important portrait prize in Australia”.

Previously, I’ve heard Archibald prizes described as “One of the worst in living memory” and “a Dog of an exhibition” and further comments that can’t be repeated. What will the 2014 Archibald prize be described as? None of the above I trust.

Most of this stuff is usually directed at a particular artist, or artwork, or the “ego of the artist” or the “character of the sitter” It’s amazing how when you don’t like a particular person that’s been painted for the Archibald, you can find so many problems with the quality of their portrait.

To date, I have seen three Archibald entries. All by female artists, and all worthy of winning the grand prize in my opinion. But who will win it this year? Usually, it’s a very well-known artist. One of the Catch-22’s of being a portrait painter in Australia is only well-known artists win the Archibald prize. So how do you get to be well-known if you don’t win the Archibald prize? I guess you just keep creating and submitting artworks, year-in-year-out until someone actually notices you.

Winning the Archibald prize is like winning the Miles Franklin award, or the Man Booker prize. It can send your career into the stratosphere and do wonders for your bank balance. Not just from the $75,000 first prize, but you will be able to add at least two zero’s to the sale of any previous or future artworks.

So best of luck to all who enter; I know I’ll be going again this year to put in my people’s choice award, and yes, I am open to bribes.