Controversy invariably dogs Australia’s most celebrated art award – The Archibald Prize for portraiture – and fortunately for those of us who love a good artistic stoush, this year is no exception. As the hordes descend on the Art Gallery of New South Wales this weekend for the usually suffocating launch of the Archibald Exhibition, all eyes will be on the winner – Ben Quilty’s portrait of Margaret Olley, the much-loved first lady and patron saint of Australian art. Is it fair dinkum, a genuine painting from real life, as the Archibald rules prescribe? Or is Quilty guilty of resorting to photographs in what’s supposed to be a purist expression of a painter’s talent? The critics are taking up their corners and the seconds are out of the ring.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s John MacDonald was effusive about the picture, opining that it “ticked so many boxes the judges would have had difficulty explaining how they could ever have given the prize to anything else”. Quilty, he said, had “painted a truthful likeness without dwelling too painfully on signs of age”. Olley turns 88 in June. The Archibald win, MacDonald wrote, had “confirmed Ben Quilty’s status as one of Australia’s most dynamic young artists”.
This is a rapier at the heart of the Archibalds. Isn’t obtaining a likeness of the subject the whole point of portraiture? Why give the prize to an artist who can’t do so without photography? The withering glance of the Sydney glitterati will doubtless descend on Allen for the grenade he’s thrown, let alone for his own withering assessment of Ben Quilty’s talent as an artist. “Quilty has ability, but he should renounce gimmicks and the pull-apart pictures for which he is known and try painting instead”, Allen wrote. Ouch.
Grubsheet would relish being the meat in the sandwich between John MacDonald and Christopher Allen at one of the fabled lunches regularly thrown by art dealer, Ray Hughes, an Archibald subject himself this year. We don’t know Allen but have had many alcohol-fuelled encounters with MacDonald at the Hughes salon. He’s no wilting violet and his response to the criticism of Quilty is likely to be characteristically colourful and curt.
A clearly bristling Ben Quilty has come to his own defence by issuing a challenge “to give anyone a draw-off to show that I can draw”. Quilty accepted that he’d used photographic references in executing the work. “Sure, I took photographs, but I made steel-plate etchings as well, and I did drawings. I used a lot of things”, he said.
Incidentally, Grubsheet thought Lucy Culliton’s entry – Ray in Paris – was particularly good and perfectly captured our old mate’s legendary bonhomie, irascibility and eye for a good tie. No need for photographs here. Ray is Lucy’s dealer, patron and friend and the picture is from real life during a rambunctious European sojourn last year.
Whatever the controversy about Ben Quilty’s work, there’s no denying the continuing star power of his subject, who’s become the first person in the 90-year history of the Archibalds to be the subject of the winning entry twice. Margaret Olley was a comely 25 when she was painted by William Dobell for the competition in 1948. She tells the story that Dobell asked her to come to a party dressed as a duchess. This was no easy task in that era of post-war austerity so Olley cobbled together an extravagant dress made of pieces of parachute silk. The resulting image as become one of the icons of Australian art. And the lady herself has matured into not only one of our greatest painters herself but an extravagantly generous benefactor who’s given away an estimated eight-million dollars. Bravo.