The Archies

Art expert Anna explains The Archies. And the winner is a woman!!!

AnnaGroden_headshotAnna Groden

It is opportune in the inaugural year of WonderWomen, that the 2013 winner of the Archibald should be a woman! This is the second time Del Kathryn Barton has won this very highly regarded and coveted Australian Art prize, pocketing a smooth $75,000 and an enormous amount of publicity.

In its 92 year history, the Archibald has been won by a female artist only nine times. Previous winners are Nora Heysen (1938), Judy Cassab (1960/1967), Janet Dawson (1973), Davida Allen (1986), Wendy Sharpe (1996), Cherry Hood (2002) and Del Kathyrn Barton (2008/2013). Traditionally, art was always a very male dominated domain with women artists fighting for recognition and the same respect as their male counterparts until the mid 20th century. Today, the art world presents a more level playing field when it comes to gender issues and it is refreshing to see a female artist recognised again in such a notable way.

There are many art prizes across Australia but none have captured the public’s interest quite like the Archies. It is not just about the clever representation of the celebrity sitter and the artist’s ability to capture their character and mood beyond their mere likeness. It is also about exciting art techniques and how artists manipulate the tools they work with to create a new work with a fresh vision. This is something we, the public, cannot do, but we certainly appreciate the artists’ particular perspective and how they bring it to life, as demonstrated by the 180,000 odd people who flock to the Art Gallery of NSW each year to see the Archies in person.

The 2013 exhibition features an interesting display of sitters – from fellow artists, such as Fiona Lowry’s portrait of Shaun Gladwell and Jasper Knight’s homage to the late Adam Cullen; to TV stars, such as Vincent Fantauzzo’s portrait of Gold Logie winner Asher Keddie and Alexander McKenzie’s Toni Collette.

The work that caught the attention of the Trustees this year was Del Kathryn Barton’s Hugo; a strongly patterned, dare I say decorative, watercolour, gouache and acrylic on canvas measuring 200 x 180 cm.

Hugo holds in his arms an animal of questionable breed, with autumnal leaf vines framing his head and an Aboriginal art-esque background. But what does it all mean? Barton has said the creature “demonstrates facets of the actor’s personality”, leaving her audience guessing, and if we were not told that the sitter was Hugo Weaving, I am not sure we would have guessed. This is undoubtedly the nature of contemporary portraiture – capturing a true likeness is not paramount. However as a viewer, I personally like to have an insight into the artist’s symbolism and stylistic cues and here they remain the secret of both artist and subject.

What Barton says of the man is as follows:

‘Hugo Weaving is an Australian cultural treasure, an artist in every sense of the word … For many years I have admired his work both on screen and stage. Initially, I had considered a very simple pictorial approach for Hugo, a bearded man in a black suit. But when we sat down to discuss the portrait I was enchanted by the rich content in his stories and felt moved to interpret and assemble a kind of personalised symbology within his portrait. More than anything I hoped to portray a sincere, deep, generous and creative soul.’

If you haven’t already made it to the AGNSW, here is the link to the 2013 Archibald exhibition so you can judge the works for yourself.