2020 Archibald Prize. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery Road, The Domain, Sydney. Closes January 10.
This is the 99th anniversary of Australia's great love affair with portraiture, the Archibald Prize, and the first COVID Archibald. There is nothing quite like it in the world - a portrait prize that stops a nation and a money-spinner for the host institution that keeps on giving year after year.
It seems that the greatest portraitists were ambivalent about the task, with Thomas Gainsborough declaring that "the cursed face business ... would be enough to drive me crazy", while William Hogarth lamented, "I am unwilling to sink into a portrait manufacturer". When it comes to the Archibald, there never seems to be a shortage of artists wanting to have a go and of sitters queuing up to be flattered. This year, 11 of the 55 finalists are self-portraits, but before too many theories spring up about COVID isolation leading to self-portraiture, the point needs to be made that it is not unusual for up to a quarter of the finalists to be self-portraits. Two conclusions can possibly be drawn: some artists are narcissists or some artists are too impoverished to afford another model.
While it has never surprised me that so many artists will put their hand up for the $100,000 prize accompanied by a million dollars worth of publicity, what amazes me is the huge interest in the Archibald from the general, especially non-art, public. They come in their thousands and tens of thousands to stare at portraits of people they generally don't know with many of the paintings of a very uneven standard. The biggest flaw (or perhaps inadvertent strength) of the Archibald is that the selection and the final judgement is made by people with little or no professional knowledge of art - the trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW. Of the 11 trustees, only two are artists, Ben Quilty and Tony Albert. The rest are captains of industry, philanthropists and people with high profiles and deep pockets, including David Gonski AC, Gretel Packer AM and Lucy Turnbull AO. These are ideal trustees, but are they qualified as judges of art?
The Archibald winners over the past few years appear to have been judged on three main criteria - fashion, politics and money. This year's winner, Vincent Namatjira's Stand strong for who you are, is no exception. It depicts Vincent Namatjira, a Western Arrernte artist, clasping hands with the footballer Adam Goodes surrounded by smaller images of Goodes and Namatjira celebrating Aboriginal pride. In the age of Black Lives Matter, this is, politically, the right moment for an Aboriginal artist to win the Archibald for the first time in its history. The great-grandson of renowned watercolour artist Albert Namatjira, Vincent Namatjira started painting dot paintings in 2012 and portraits in 2013.
My main hesitation is that the Goodes painting is not a particularly strong work and Namatjira's other Archibald entries in earlier years - Self-portrait on Friday (2017), Studio self-portrait (2018) and Art is our weapon - portrait of Tony Albert (2019) - are all much more interesting and accomplished paintings.
Can a case be made that the Namatjira was the outstanding work in a very bleak field? Possibly not, for although it is not an outstanding show, there is a handful of interesting and accomplished paintings, including a couple of newcomers to the Archibald, such as Karen Black's moving portrait of Madonna Staunton and the Aboriginal artist, Charlene Carrington's witty and effective portrait of her father, Churchill Cann. Sinead Davies's The Irish immigrant - portrait of Claire Dunne OAM, is a subtle work that grows on you with prolonged viewing and must be seen in the flesh. Tsering Hannaford's Self-portrait after 'Allegory of Painting' is a very clever handling of a very well-known model, and there is also Wendy Sharpe's vibrant and effective portrait of Magda Szubanski.
Possibly, out of the half-dozen portraits in this year's Archibald by Aboriginal artists, artistically Namatjira's is not the strongest candidate, but the tide of fashion and politics made it the clear winner.