Why the Archibald matters: It matters because the Archibald is about the oldest subject in the history of oil painting and the oldest theme in the history of art: the portrait and the figure.
Why it doesn’t: The portrait does not figure very much in today’s “contemporary art practice.” It’s not cool or fashionable or cutting edge – its conceptual basis is old as. It’s not favoured by the art market.
Why people like it: The reason why people – “The People” – like the Archibald is that they/we/the people are all experts on the subject of the show: People. We’re experts on the visuals, the psychology, the habitats, the celebrity. That’s why some kind of likeness matters in a portrait, even in a post-photographic world – we have to be convinced that we are considering the portrait of Joe Smith, and not his brother John Smith, or his neigbour John Brown. We’re anxious enough when we can’t recall the name of someone at a party; not being sure if it’s the right person means that we don’t know who we are talking to; and identity, as any national Australian event tells us, is the biggest deal of all.
The tl;dr version
(Nerd for “too long; didn’t read”)
Ancient art: The oldest art is probably abstract – which blows my whole theory up! We should stay with the Modernist Abstractionists and the Abstract Expressionists – Kandinsky & Mondrian & Pollock & Rothko & Co. Below, left: The oldest “art” is rock carving (petroglyphs), and cupules (hollows) have been noted everywhere. This example is in India, and is the oldest yet found at something between 290,000-700,000 BCE. Precise, aren’t they? Below, centre: The figure arrives: she is the “Venus of Berekhat Ram” discovered in Israel, about 230,000-500,000 BCE. Below, right: The rather more refined and sensual “Venus of Hohle Fels” in Germany, about 33,000 BCE. Looks like “modern art,” no?
Modern art: Oil painting, Western art’s premier and distinctive medium was launched – according to Vasari, the Renaissance historian – by the Flemish artist Jan van Eyck at the start of the 15th century. Five hundred years on, he has not been bettered. Below: This celebrated double portrait from 1434 is, of course, “The Arnolfini Portrait ” or “The Marriage of Arnolfini.” (National Gallery, London.) The gravity and tenderness, the sheer splendour of the details – down to the famous reflection in the mirror. And the way the bride holds up her skirt in a mound, or as a coy invitation suggests a certain tested fertilty. Perhaps we might retitle it The Venus of Arnolfini.
There is no reason why the Archibald needs to be an annual joke. But if they must have trustees and businesspeople as the judges of the award, it’s all you can expect.
The big head:
In the Australian, art critic Christopher Allen mentioned two problems with the Archibald: “The first is the big head: a variety of portrait that has evolved specifically in the context of the Archibald Prize. No one wants to hang a 2m face on their wall, but painters are afraid they won’t be noticed in the visual cacophony without the benefit of scale.”
What he doesn’t say is why people may be averse to a 2m head. It’s because it’s bigger than life size. That monumental scale belongs to gods – think the ancient world and sculpture; and to a certain bombast arriving in the latter half of the last century, heralded by the Pop artists. Think Warhol’s giant Marilyns and Jackie Os and … Maos. Which brings us back to gods – in modern times the big head suggests a kind of complicated irony (Warhol, Chuck Close), or it has the unreality of filmstars on billboards … or, most inescapably, it has been appropriated by tyrants: Mao and Stalin, Amin and Saddam et al. That’s why we don’t like big heads – a big head spells trouble, hubris, a forgetting about human relationships. It’s a categorical mistake to think that one can portray humanity with a giant’s head.
So it’s a Very Good Thing that this year’s winner, Sam Leach’s portrait of Tim Minchin is a smallish painitng of the full figure. See the scale here.
Contemporary photo-based realism:
Allen’s second point: “The other problem, often found in combination with the first, is the reliance on photography.”
I think this is a (much, much) more complicated matter.
Allen: “Here, in fact, you have the main options in gigantic photorealism: as with peanut butter, you can get it smooth (such as the portrait of Fahey) or chunky [Apple Yin’s picture of a man in a turban]. Either way, it is a superficial stylistic top dressing added to the banality of photographic likeness … More broadly, the photographic way of seeing the world can invade the painter’s imagination and reduce his vision to a narrow literalism.”
I sort of agree with Allen, but it really is a vexed matter. However, what Allen says cannot be gainsaid about painting from a photo, or photos. The information you have to paint from is limited to those photographs. A person in the flesh is a lifetime’s worth of viewing. Francis Bacon painted from photos – in order to distort the subject, which he said he could never do in front of the sitter. Lucien Freud, the “greatest” living painter of the figure and face paints from life; his sittings take hours and hours.
The Archibald, which let us not forget, is a painting prize, insists that the artist be in the presence of the subject, oh, at least a good fifteen minutes. You could pass the Archibald requirements by meeting your sitter at the airport, making a quick doodle on a newspaper margin and taking a bunch of digital snaps for reference.
Van Eyck would weep.