• Wednesday, September 22, 2004

    Nora Heysen became the first woman to win the Archibald Prize in 1938. The portrait, of socialite Elink Schuurman was widely criticized as not representing a person 'distinguished in Art, Letters, Science or Politics' which was Archibald's preference, although not an absolute requirement.

    Max Meldrum who was to win in 1939 and 1940 made the insensitive and arrogant statement about Heysen that "If I were a woman, I would certainly prefer raising a healthy family to a career in art. Women are more closely attached to the physical things of life. They are not to blame. They cannot help it, and to expect them to do some things equally as well as men is sheer lunacy."

    I am unable to discover any recorded statements by Meldrum as to his opinion of Heysen's artwork (a far more beautiful painting than either of Meldrum's stodgy winners). Perhaps he was so inundated with expressions of gratitude from female artists realising the error of their ways that he didn't have time to go have a look.

    Heysen died only recently. Barry Pearce, curator of Australian Art at the AGNSW said "She was a true philosopher of painting. For her painting was about an exploration of the world, not about being famous or being hung in museums. To paint a flower was like a prayer."

    My, how times change.

    posted by Challenge Team @ 10:10 AM1 comment


    The Archibald Prize has always been larger than life, and has attracted larger than life artists and situations. Another post on this page tells the story of one painting that spent time at the bottom of the sea (Secrets Of Archibald Records). Other years have produced no less remarkable stories. Like 1934 for example:

    That year Henry Hanke won with a self portrait. The press soon discovered that Hanke was so poor he couldn't afford to buy paint and instead made his own from hardware pigments. That is, when he could paint. He worked in the markets and mixed concrete in his struggle with hardship. One story that made the rounds was of Henry painting his own hands, while covered in blisters from making concrete.

    While William Dargie might not have struggled quite so much as he painted for the Archibald, he never-the-less had to deal with difficulties, from a painting being sunk by enemy fire to a real fire at his studio. In 1945 he was painting Lt-General The Hon Edmund Herring, K.B.C., D.S.O., M.C., E.D. when fire broke out in his buiding. He apparently ran into Collins Street with the half finished painting in his hands. Talk about getting your priorities right!

    Despite risking his life for the work he never got to keep the picture. At the time Dargie was still an official war artist, and after the Archibald win the picture was deemed the property of the Australian War Memorial where it can be seen today.

    Even the famous Dobell portrait of Joshua Smith has a little known, but interesting story attached to it. Not only was it caricatured as a portrait of Hitler with the same distortions as Joshua Smith, a syndicate of American servicemen tried to raise enough money to buy the painting. Their aim it appears was to present the work to the Museum Of Modern Art in New York! Had they succeeded perhaps the picture might never been damaged in the fire that eventually ruined the masterpiece. That was one Archibald entry that couldn't be rescued from the fire, even by GI's.

  • Saturday, December 04, 2004


    Is it possible to avoid stories about the Archibald Prize that don't point up the worst in gender based bigotry? Even the following story of one of the very best of Archibald winners is tainted by a malicious tongue.

    The painting in question is the 1948 winner, Dobell's portrait of his friend and fellow artist, Margaret Olley. Recent opinion, and the fairest of the day would agree with Anna Waldmann when she described it as "an outstanding opulent and vigorous painting." Hanging in the Art Gallery of New South Wales it is a long time favourite of many gallery visitors and regulars and demonstrates a facility with the brush that is extraordinary, comparable with the work of great artists from any place and any time.

    However, appreciation at the time was far from universal, most famously in the case of one J.S. MacDonald who very cruelly, and very publicly, commented: "what public is it that wants to look forever at a fat, dress-bursting woman, unhealthily obese from wrong or over-feeding? But for her clothes, she would melt, ooze away, collapse and spread." It is mind boggling to think that such attitudes exist and are printed as acceptable comment. That they pretend to be legitimate art criticism is plain offensive.

    The challenge team thinks that Margaret Olley is not only one of Australia's greatest artists and a worthy successor to Dobell, but is a beautiful human being, and in the case of Dobell's portrait, stunningly portrayed. So go stick it, MacDonald!

    Few people realise that the painting only came to compete in the Archibald because of the influence of another of Dobell's friends, Sali Herman. The picture had actually been painted several years earlier, in Dobell's Kings Cross studio, which he vacated some time around 1943. The story goes that Dobell was never happy with the work and that years later when Sali Herman was visiting Dobell's Wangi studio, the subject turned to the Archibald. Dobell did not intend to enter that year, not having painted anyone for it. Herman remembered the Olley portrait, which apparently he liked. Dobell dug it out of the pile, decided that he would make some changes. Famously the pictures final glazes were still wet when he submitted the work at the last moment, and as they say, the rest is history.

    This raises an interesting point. The recently introduced prize condition disallowing the submission of wet paintings would have eliminated the entry of the Dobell portrait, a winner that might be argued to be an example of the sort of excellence that Archibald sought to nurture with his prize. That point would be merely moot except for the precedents from past legal advice particularly in 1929 and 1940 which were that " any such restrictions would limit the artists freedom by excluding a number of portraits for reasons not mentioned in the original will." This refered to attempts by the Trustees to introduce conditions restricting size and, strangely, copying.

    It is possible that more than one of the current conditions set in recent years by the Trustees are challengable in regard to the intent of Archibald's will. And so they should be, after all, we don't want to see any work eligible under the bequest conditions unfairly excluded in the same way that we don't want ineligible works stealing the prize.

  • Wednesday, October 06, 2004


    The Archibld Prize has produced many records, bless it's dear little heart. One 20 year period in the 1940's and 50's outdid itself itself however.

    For a start there was the painting that swam! Still the only winner of a major art prize in Australia that has spent time on the bottom of the sea was Dargie's 1942 winner (of war hero Corporal Jim Gordon). The picture was on a ship sailing for Australia when it was sunk. Remarkably the painting survived the ordeal and was rescued despite great dangers, after-all, the symbolism involved in the visage of a national icon being exhibited to the fish was too much for war scarred Australia. By the time it reached the Trustees judging desk it was the most famous picture in the land, and a cert to win the prize.

    The corporals capturor was none other than William Dargie. Some would argue that Dargs was one of the less exciting portraitests the world has seen, but the Trustees thought otherwise, giving the gong a record 8 times to the consistent war artist. Actually he holds another, maybe more significant record. He holds the record for the most letters after the names of subjects. Even the Corporal had V.C. after his name and Lt General The Hon Edmund Herring had K.B.C., D.S.O., M.C., E.D. (won 1945). All in all Dargie had 24 letters after the names of his sitters.

    Not to be outdone, or so he thought, Ivor Hele produced winners with 19 letters (21 if you include the ESQ at the end of Robert Campbells name) (won 1955)Hele won 5 times, so that is actually the record for the highest average number of letters per painting.

    No wonder the rest of the pack struggled to win! Not a single letter after a name amongst them. Dobell against the odds did manage 3 winners (1943, 1948 and 1959) but the remaining 4 years of the 20 were won by artists destined to be1 time winners for that period. Someone should have told them - the secret was to put letters after the sitters names.

    Thank you to Anna for the fun Archibald stats. We'll try to bring you more as time goes by. The Archibald should never be too serious.


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  • Thursday, September 23, 2004

    Yes, in each of the 1935 and 1967 Archibald Exhibitions there have been drawn portraits. According to the terms of the bequest of J. F. Archibald the Trustees could hang any work they choose for the Archibald exhibition, including artworks that do not comply with Archibald's terms for the winner. This is because Archibald is silent on the subject of an exhibition, except to say that the Trustees may hang the winner.

    What the Trustees cannot do is award the Archibald Prize itself to any artwork that does not comply with the bequest. This is because Archibald specifically states that the WINNING artwork must be both a portrait and painted. By law the words of a charitable bequest cannot easily be changed or disregarded.

    posted by Challenge Team @ 1:47

  • Saturday, November 27, 2004

    As with any institution or person they no doubt would like that to be the case. But, as with the rest of the world, they have experienced a full range of wins and losses. In short: they wish, but lets get real here.

    A very high profile loss was when Gallery Director, Edmund Capon was overheard expressing what was no doubt his honest opinion as to the merits of a certain painting. Chalk up one very expensive defamation loss to an angry artist.

    Naturally, their most famous win was the Dobell case itself. Some artists felt agrieved over the Dobell painting. In the end the Court ruled that it was the plaintiffs who were in the wrong. Not because they didn't like the painting, but because to accept their argument required reinterpreting Archibalds words, and in law that is a big no-no, the words of charitable bequests are protected as if sacred.

    In both the Dobell and Bloomfield cases the AGNSW Trustees were seen by the Court as defenders of Archibalds exact words. In the instances where the trustees tried to change Archibalds intent by introducing arbitrary new rules, as in 1922, 1929, and 1940, the Crown Solicitors of those days argued against the legal action, and in no instance did the Trustees get their way.

    The weight of legal precedent has always been the protection of the original intent of any charitable bequest. Most people would see this as a good thing overall. Where would we be if charitable organisations that benefit from peoples wills were to decide to reinterpret their work? If the Red Cross decided they no longer wanted to do the work that their founder had in mind, there would be public protestors calling for the sacking of the revisionist leadership. Art may not be as important as the lifesaving work of the Red Cross, but the law sees no distinction when it comes to bequests.

    Unfortunately for the Art Gallery Trustees this time around it is very difficult to argue that Ruddy's large drawing fits the express intent of the will of the late J.F. Archibald.

    posted by Challenge Team @ 1:28 AM1 comments Thursday, October 07, 2004

  • Thursday, October 07, 2004

    Over the years it has changed- that is inevitable, and desirable. Other things are at issue here. It should be noted that change is possible under Archibald's will. He left huge leeway. The only things set in concrete were that it has to be a portrait, that it has to be painted, that it has to be done by someone resident in Australasia during the 12 months before the competition. Thats all. Archibald said he PREFERED someone distinguished, and there has always been a presumption that became a legal precedent in 1983 that it be painted from life.

    That very contemporary and very creative portraits can be produced within restricting frameworks is the very story of art itself from the Sistine ceiling to Whiteleys 1978 Archibald winner "Art, Life And The Other Thing" the very best artworks tend to explore the boundaries and definitions of human parameters. The worst possible outcome from the legal challenge would be for the Prize to be reduced to a conservative traditionalist exhibition. Besides that would itself be against the spirit of Archibalds Bequest. He made it plain that his intent was to nurture excellence within Australian portraiture.

    Change then is part of Archibald Prize life. Restricting change never has been part of this court action, rather the problem is two-fold. Firstly there is the matter of law pertaining to charitable bequests. Simply stated it is very difficult to change charitable bequests. Before the law the wishes of the benefactor are extremely important. There is a recognition of a sacred responsibility in regard to the way trusts are discharged. In effect, it is Archibalds money, the true beneficiaries are the artists who win the prize, and the trustees have a legal obligation to adhere to Archibalds will as much as is possible. Secondly, and to some more importantly there is the issue of fairness due to inconsistency. At the top of the Entry form in bold letters the Trustees invite artists to submit paintings, and then repeat it twice. To be very clear they also state at the top of the form that for the purposes of the prize they will apply the definition of a portrait as determined in the 1983 court judgement "a picture of a person painted from life". That court action was a result of the Trustees taking John Bloomfield to court because they believed he had not adhered to Archibalds will. Fairness demands that they apply the same standards to themselves.

    The issue of unfairness is an emotional resonse to the matter. In the courts it is more about the legal protection of charitable bequests. Either way it is a pity that what might be seen as an unwise Prize decision should obscure the appreciation of art.

    posted by Challenge Team @ 1:55 AM2 comments Thursday, September 23, 2004


    The mixed media clause is of recent origin and follows a number of entries that were paintings but that had various media added to some paintings. This is a clause that may need clarification and to be defined in line with the intent of J.F. Archibald now that it has had the unintended consequence of possibly causing Craig Ruddy to believe that his large entry is eligible to win the Archibald Prize.

    In the case where non-painting materials form a small portion of a picture, such as in the Mittelmann winner of a few years ago, it is hard to imagine most fair minded people not agreeing that it is anything other than a painting with a small amount of drawing media on top of it. In the case of the Ruddy work it is hard to imagine most fair minded people not agreeing that it is clearly a drawing. It doesn't matter that some people would like to rewrite dictionaries to fit what they want to read. In the process, the whole question of a mixed media clause comes into question. That is for the court to decide. Certainly in the past the court has taken care to ensure that the express intent of Archibald is paramount.

    Rather than risk the courts striking the clause out, perhaps the AGNSW Trust should take urgent steps to review whether or not the Ruddy work steps over the line of what Archibald intended.

    Curiously, Archibald made no provision for finalists or exhibitions of selected work, so there is no reason in the bequest not to broaden acceptable works for the Archibald exhibition, even to include new media, performance, installation and so on. It is only in the awarding of the prize that Archibald's intent is clear, that it must be a 'portrait...painted...' and it is in the awarding of the prize itself that the Trustees are restricted from awarding it to anything other than a painting, painted from life. And so it has been until now.


    Nothing would be simpler than if the AGNSW Trust announced they were reviewing the 2004 judgement in light of the question: is it a painting or is it a drawing? Then relooking at Archibalds words, and, incidentally their own words in the entry form.

    If it's a case of simply wanting the definition of painting to include works that are drawings then I suggest a visit to the dictionary, and then taking that up with messers Webster, Oxford et al. Desire to reinvent the meanings of words does not make it so. Afterall there is a reason there are two different words in question here. It is because they refer to different kinds of artworks.

    It is difficult to imagine any objective look at the question (as to whether or not the work fits both the words of Archibald or the Trusts own invitation to artists to submit paintings), could come to any conclusion other than to re-evaluate the eligibility of the Ruddy work as a legitimate winner.

    If the Trust were to take this course there would be very little reason to pursue the Supreme Court action and large amounts of legal fees could be saved as well.


    Many people have asked the question what is in this for me? Implying that the point would be monetary reward. Sorry to dissapoint, however, idealism and a sense of injustice have nothing to do with money.

    All we seek is a declaration from the court that the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales judge the prize in accordance with the will of J.F. Archibald. If anyone gets monetary compensation out of this it should be Craig Ruddy, for inconveniences caused by the Trustees decision. Personal gain has never been my goal with the Archibald Challenge.

    Ultimately, it is hoped, the big winners will be all Australian portrait painters due to consistant judging standards according to Archibald's intent.