More than 60 years after a couple of aggrieved artists branded William Dobell’s portrait of Joshua Smith a caricature, the Archibald Prize is once again on trial in the NSW Supreme Court.

Sydney artist Tony Johansen has taken the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales to court alleging that the winner of the 2004 prize, Craig Ruddy’s portrait of actor David Gulpilil (right), “is not a painting but a drawing“.

The rules for the 85-year-old prize state that portraits submitted for the competition must be “painted” from life.

Johansen’s lawyer is arguing that because Ruddy had worked mainly in charcoal, the portrait could not be described as a painting. Ruddy told the court he used crushed charcoal, charcoal sticks, conte crayons, pencils and acrylic paint.

While Ruddy agreed he had told a reporter back in 2004 that the portrait was 90% charcoal, on reflection he believed it was “probably more accurately around 75% now”.

Given that Tony Johansen is such a stickler for the rules, his choice of subject for his unsuccessful entry in the 2004 competition is interesting. He painted the famous Kings Cross drag queen, Carlotta. The Archibald rules stipulate that a portrait should be “preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in Art, Letters, Science or Politics”.

While I’m happy to accept that Carlotta is distinguished in the arts, if we were to apply the standards of 1919 (the year the prize was established), some people might take the view that a cross-dressing entertainer is not a suitable subject.