This morning I am off to the Archies as they are colloquially known, and am looking forward to it.
The Archies or, to give them the proper title, the Archibald Prize, is Australia's best known annual prize for portraiture. This painting, W. B. McInnes's Portrait of Miss Collins, won the 1924 Prize.
J. F. Archibald (14 January 1856 – 10 September 1919) was was co-owner and editor of The Bulletin during the days of that magazine's greatest influence on Australian politics and literary life. Upon his death, he bequeathed money to create the Archibald Memorial Fountain in Sydney's Hyde Park, a major Sydney attraction, and to establish an annual prize for portraiture.
The first prize was awarded in 1921 and has been awarded annually since with the exception of two years (1964 and 1980) when the judges deemed that no painting was worthy of the award. Over the years since the first award, the Prize has reflected the changes in the Australian art scene and has attracted its fair share of controversies.
Perhaps the most famous came in 1943. In that year, the Prize was won by William Dobell's painting of fellow artist Joshua Smith. This led to a court challenge on the grounds that it was a caricature rather than a portrait.
The case was dismissed in court, but the controversy dogged both men. Smith who won the Prize the next year, found that the painting was more famous than his own work and described it in 1991 as a curse, a phantom that haunts me. It has torn at me every day of my life. For his part, the emotional stress place on Dobell by the court case and surrounding controversy led him to retreat to his sister's home at Wangi Wangi on Lake Macquarie where he began to paint landscapes.
The Australian art world was a small one and also split between cities and schools. Everybody knew everybody, so disputes attracted a personal element. The art world was also part of and affected by broader changes and controversies in Australian life, This included disputes over the role of art in society and as a representation of culture.
One modern example was the establishment of the Doug Moran Prize for portraiture in 1988 to provide an alternative prize. The Moran Prize has attracted its own controversy including this fascinating legal dispute in my own backyard that I hadn't been aware of until I came to research this story.
Personally, and I accept that this is a matter of taste, I haven't enjoyed the Archies as much in recent years. The last time I went I was very disappointed with the paintings. There was nothing that made me really stop and look. Still, I am looking forward to seeing this year's exhibition.