Linseed oil and varnish — the bouquet of freshly painted portraits: the slashing virtuosity of Whiteley; the fury of Bacon; the destabilising deconstructions of Picasso!

Unfortunately it’s the Archibald 2012 — when I visited the show in its Sydney home a month ago, there wasn’t a single picture that insisted on time spent in its company. But now that the Archibald has been embraced by Melbourne at Tarrawarra, the least we can do is make the annual trek. As the poet Auden said about neuroses — “One should have as many neuroses as one can bear” — one should probably have as many rituals as one can tolerate. And, at Tarrawarra, there are the compensations of wine and food and splendid views.

I noted once again the preponderance of the male gaze in the show, by both artists and subjects. Of the 41 finalists (see the very nicely sorted website), eleven are women. Of the subjects, ten are women — of whom four are self-portraits. (Interesting? Out of the last 20 years, there have only been four women winners: Davida Allen, 1986; Wendy Sharpe, 1996; Cherry Hood, 2002; Del Kathryn Barton, 2008. And only four before that back to 1921.) It surely proves that Aussie blokes are a whole lot more sensitive and empathetic than they’re given credit for. (Or, mm, do you think it proves something else…?)

The winner 2012: nobody home

Tim Storrier‘s “The histrionic wayfarer (After Bosch),” above, suggests a painter’s modest disclaimer: “I am the sum of my props.” It looks to me like an artist/explorer in a barren landscape searching for a mirror — he will be sorely disappointed when he does find one. I’m guessing the Trustees chose it for its “wit,” metaphysics and polish — it’s painted with Storrier’s usual “cold, sleek glamour” as a critic said about the films of Ridley Scott. The wit is more like a joke, and the joke is on the judges.

Above: Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Wayfarer — a mystery figure with one shoe and one slipper. “The pilgrim who goes through life weighed down by the baggage of his earthly existence.” Wonderfully earthy. Note how the Bosch figure is on the same level as the viewer; the Storrier has a very low angle, which results in a “heroic” pose — which is the view one has of a statue on a pedestal: Self-portrait of the artist on a pedestal. 

Me me me me me

In one way, the winner this year is emblematic of the finalists — it’s a self-portrait. Fully one third, 14, are self-gazing (two are shown with another subject). The “me, me, me-ness” made me think the preferences of the original brief of the Prize had a point: “the best portrait, preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in Art, Letters, Science or Politics…” The move away to a more informal, looser idea of “distinguished” — since, say William Robinson’s 1995 winner, “Self-portrait with stunned mullet,” an actually witty bit of fine painting — has ended up with this year’s panoply of somewhat underpowered subjects. It’s all much more egalidemocratic, and the reflections of self seem infected by media constructions of celebrity — where the only achievement is the willingness to be scrutinised. (But then, consider the sad self-portrait by Jenny Sages, who indeed, looks widowed. The anatomy of this realistic head doesn’t look quite right — it’s oddly flat in the area where nose joins to face — but the feeling is all there.)

Long story short: Once upon a time, rich subjects commissioned painted immortality. The Kodak Brownie changed all that in 1900. What work does an oil/acrylic/whatever portrait do now? I’ve a sneaking suspicion that a prize like the Archibald with its attendant national interest could only ever take off in Australia — that marsupial of western nations. In Europe, the notion of competing with the portraits by Van Eyck and Rembrandt and Holbein and Ingres and Freud, just round the corner in your local state gallery, could only make a painter pall.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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