Archibald Prize: six winners on what it has meant for them and how to paint a contender
July 8 2016
If the Archibald Prize is the Melbourne Cup of art, then this table tucked away in a quiet corner of the Art Gallery of NSW restaurant is its equivalent of the winners circle. Between them, the six people sitting down to lunch have won seven Archibalds.
Archibald Packing Room prize winner Betina Fauvel-Ogden describes the "little bit of magic" that happened painting her portrait of celebrity chef George Calombaris.
There's Ben Quilty (2011 winner), full of energy and riffing off his mate next to him, the impish Guy Maestri (2009). Marcus Wills (2006) and Sam Leach (2010) have flown up from Melbourne and are eager to swap experiences. Del Kathryn Barton (2008, 2013) effortlessly charms everyone with her infectious laughter, while John Beard (2007) slips easily into the role of elder statesman.
Earlier, we spent half an hour in the gallery loading dock taking photographs of the group as a small crowd of gallery staff, including legendary head packer Steve Peters, looked on. (Yes, he has chosen this year's packer's prize winner. No, he won't be giving a nosy journalist a heads-up on who it is.)
The artists establish a quick, easy rapport, based on the shared experience of the prize but also understanding the restless compulsion and challenges of the creative life.
More specifically, they all are part of that exclusive club who know what it feels like to receive that phone call.
(Left to right) Del Kathryn Barton, Sam Leach, Ben Quilty, Guy Maestri and John Beard. Photo: Janie Barrett
Winning Archibald artists are notified a few hours beforehand, then endure the agony of staying silent during the announcement ceremony until their name is read out.
"I got the call when I was asleep and the lady said, 'I hope you're sitting down', and I said, 'I'm actually in bed right now …' " recalls Maestri. "How do you even describe it? It was quite surreal. I remember I came home that night and I had put my breakfast bowl in the pantry with the milk and cereal still in it."
John Beard and artist Janet Laurence with his 2007 Archibald Prize winner. Photo: Tracey Nearmy
For equally personal reasons Barton precisely recalls the moment she found out.
"I was having a massive row with my husband in the car," she says. "We were running late and it was just a really stressy moment. I got the call – it put the argument to rest. And then I'm like, 'I have to get a blow dry and what am I going to wear?' "
Art to art ... Del Kathryn Barton and John Beard share a moment over lunch. Photo: Janie Barrett
Beard's win was a case of third time lucky. He had given the prize little thought until his friend, the late Bill Wright, former assistant director of the Art Gallery of NSW, bet him $100 he would win if he entered three times.
His first attempt in 2005 was a portrait of fellow artist Hilarie Mais, but he knew it wasn't his year as soon as he arrived at the gallery.
"As I dropped the painting off out of the car I saw John Olsen's painting come out and I thought, 'Wrong year!' "
Olsen's Self portrait Janus Faced did indeed pick up the prize.
Del Kathryn Barton's 2013 Archibald Prize-winning portrait of Hugo Weaving. Photo: Samantha Robin
The next year he painted sculptor Ken Unsworth. Unsworth came to his studio to see the finished portrait but also caught sight of Beard's painting of The Gap.
He told Beard he wouldn't win the Archibald that year but that the Gap painting would take out the Wynne landscape prize – which it did.
"The third year I struck lucky and I had to pay my $100," says Beard. His Archibald winner was a portrait of Janet Laurence.
Describing his feelings leading up to the 2011 announcement, his year, Quilty says he was at once convinced he would win and convinced he wouldn't.
He tries to explain: "As an artist you have to have that ego – you're putting something out there in the public all the time so you have to have a level of ego to do that. But then a prize like that is judged by 11 people; you get a sense that it has got to be pretty random in the end."
When he found out he had won, he was suddenly confronted by the fact a lot of people would want a piece of him.
The Archibald remains an overwhelmingly male-dominated prize. Of the past 50 winners, more than 80 per cent have been blokes. In, fact only eight winners since 1964 have been women.
Barton remains baffled by this.
"I don't really understand it," she says. "There are so many fine female Australian painters. Fifty years ago it would have been a very different debate. I suppose I'm just determined to be positive – I've never felt limited by my gender in the art world."
But it's not all positive. Inevitably the ever-present shadow of threats to arts funding and arts education passes over the group. There's universal condemnation of the proposed art school amalgamations in Sydney and a sense the generations of artists following on behind might never have it so good.
"I think it is disgraceful," says Beard. "Art schools were unique institutions that provided the best form of liberal education you could have. Not necessarily a place you went to to become an artist, but a place you went to to have sensitivity, humanity and caring.
"What artists do more than anything else is have the right to be free and speak free and do what they believe in. And, of course, governments are afraid of that."
Sam Leach pinpoints the mood around the difficulties facing young artists, with a general sense their work is not as valued as it once was.
"Artists keep getting punched in the face," he says. "How long can you stay optimistic? It's not as if there is any vision or strategy for art. It just seems arbitrary."
As lunch begins to wind down and the talk turns to sharing rides to the airport and how much work is waiting in studios, there's time for one last big topic.
How the hell do you win an Archibald? Technically, anyone can have a crack – so what is required to rise above the 800-plus canvases that arrive each year?
Sadly (and unsurprisingly) there's no definitive answer. This is not painting by numbers.
Beard pauses to consider, then says, to nods around the table: "First and foremost we want the portrait to be a bloody good painting. And by that I mean a painting that represents that particular artist and is good enough to go into a museum collection. You can have an amazing likeness or whatever, but it can be a terrible painting. The structure and the language has to be there that holds it up."
From Quilty's perspective, as a current trustee, there are about a half-dozen works each year that leap out as contenders for top spot.
And sometimes it is even clearer than that.
"Last year it was absolutely obvious," he says of Nigel Milsom's winning painting of lawyer Charles Waterstreet.
"Yes, whether you liked it or not, as soon as I walked in the room it stood out as winner," adds Beard.
Barton believes a truly great portrait hinges on the bond between painter and subject.
"There has to be a really tangible, palpable connection between you and the sitter. The best portraits are about sincerity and connection."
And, judging by the amiable company made by this disparate collection of people, so are the best artists.
The Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prize finalists are on show at the Art Gallery of NSW from July 16 until October 9. Winners are announced on July 15.
"As an artist you spend so much time on your own. There is no performative aspect to our lives so it's easy to forget the rest of the world, and when you get that phone call, part of the response is just dread. Now I have to drive in there and be the focus of this insane media attention."
One thing our unique focus group agrees on is they had no real idea how big a deal winning would be until it erupted around them.
For a start, it means being forever tagged with the prefix "Archibald Prize-winning …"
"None of us go round telling everyone that we've won, but everyone else will introduce you as a winner, no matter how many years later," says Maestri.
"You feel like saying, 'I have done other things, you know,' " chimes in Beard.
The Archibald has also produced more than its fair share of critics and controversy; some argue that controversy almost defines the competition. One of the criticisms often levelled is that turning portraiture into a beauty contest or horse race is somehow inappropriate and demeaning.
Our six winners are having none of it, voicing unanimous support for the prize – and not, they all insist, just because they have benefited personally from winning.
"Some artists I know pooh-pooh it because they think it's not serious enough – they probably don't want to enter and not win," says Beard. "But the Archibald brings such a broad audience of people who wouldn't probably step inside the art gallery for any other event."
Quilty, currently one of the trustees charged with selecting the winner, is particularly robust in his defence.
"There's this thing about the Archibald where other people in the arts bag it out," he says. "Quite often it's led by people from other institutions who are just insanely jealous that a show like this – good or bad – attracts 350,000 people over 12 months.
"How can you criticise that if you work in the arts? You're touching this audience that may never look at art."
Barton emphasises the democratic nature of the Archibald – anyone can enter – and the validation being selected can give to a young artist.
"I take a more idealistic and earnest approach," she says. "I think to call it a beauty contest is a little bit unfair because all the people I know enter very sincerely and work extremely hard. It's also one of the few exhibitions or prizes in Australian culture that does manage to reach a broad audience."
When Barton won the prize in 2008, the effect on her career was almost instant, with thousands of extra people flocking to her first solo show in Melbourne that year.
Yet for her, more than her two successes in the main prize, it was being hung in the Sulman as a 21-year-old fresh out of art school that had the greatest impact.
"That was more life-changing than my Archibald experience," she says. "It's an incredibly generous thing for an institution like the Art Gallery of NSW to open up its doors to everyone. Seeing my painting hanging on those walls at that age was a paradigm-shifting experience."
The fact Barton is the only woman sitting down to our lunch is in part a reflection on the busy diaries of successful artists and who was available at the time. It is, however, also representative of the gender skew among winners.