• 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.


  • Welcome to another wonderful blog in the growing community of KingsCrossBlogs. These linked blogs reveal the the heart and soul of this vibrant bohemian district. You are invited to enjoy the many stories of our world and to leave your comments, or e-mail us the story of your Kings Cross experience. Down the track we plan to publish a selection of these in a blog of their own. Meanwhile, happy reading, and all the best from the exciting Kings Cross community.
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