Finding the Archibald

We were instantly captured by this three-part series produced, written and narrated by actor Rachel Griffiths and described as a ‘cultural romp through our most coveted and controversial arts prize’.

Ever since she played Muriel’s feisty friend Rhonda, we’ve felt she’s our special friend too and it’s lovely to see her take on the Archibald as a doco subject as well as a vehicle that allows her to shine through personally. She knows about art as she’s married to successful painter, Andrew Taylor and her mum is an art teacher but she’s not pretentious about it and there’s something really lovely about her approach to viewing and talking about art.

She’s not arts trained – she’s an ‘art lover’ and this brings an ‘everywoman’ sort of charm to the show, capturing the spirit of what the Archibald is all about really – a popular cultural event that bridges the gap between arts connoisseurs and people who just know what they like.

The Archie 100, Art Gallery of New South Wales

The Archie 100, Art Gallery of New South Wales

 

Griffths calls the Archibald ‘the face that stops a nation’, cute! It’s true that almost everyone can get their eye in on a portrait, it’s accessible and popular as a genre and one of the reasons the Archibald Prize has been such a huge success alongside it’s focus on celebrity – interesting to find out that the original prize stipulated that the sitter had to be ‘distinguished’.

Griffiths brings a sense of fun and an intuitive sensibility. She even makes riding a scooter look cool (we want a scooter). She’s an actor who has spent her entire career ‘trying to understand the human condition’ and this resonates with the concept of portraiture and within it, the definition of a quality work. She decides early on that she’s going to choose one painting from the past 100 years that ‘captures the changing face of Australia and will stand the test of time’. We’re loving the ambition of that quest and you will have to watch to see if she manages to decide on just one work. We’re only up to episode three so we’re keen to see where she goes from here.

Finding the Archibald Rachel Griffiths

Rachel Griffiths by Natasha Bieniek

 

The Archibald Prize is also celebrating its centenary with an ambitious exhibition of 100 selected works from the past century titled Archie 100 (it’s running alongside the Archibald Prize exhibition at the moment) and, alongside Griffith’s ‘for fun’ adventure piece, is Natalie Wilson from the AGNSW. We watch as she starts the curation of the upcoming exhibition, researching hundreds of winners and finalists from the past century. Her search involves thousands of emails sent in an effort to locate past Archibald entries (when she started, they were missing 5000 out of 6000 works) and we are guessing the promotion of the centenary and this show helped Griffiths get access to the secret Archibald storerooms and Wilson herself. Wilson’s historical knowledge and contextual arts smarts is a pleasure to watch and a nice counter to Griffiths more instinctual approach.

A lot of what we learn is actually quite shocking, the first 50 years of the prize for example only included white men artists (it makes perfect sense when you realise the white Australian policy only ended in 1973!!) and only three First Nations people as sitters in 100 years. Oh, and no First Nations winners before 2020 when the prize was picked up by Vincent Namatjira. His well-deserved win bookends the winning entry in 1956 by William Dargie of Vincent’s grandfather, Albert. The meeting with Vincent and the discussion around his and Dargie’s wins is one of the best parts of this series as is Griffith’s focus on the lens through which artists make work.

The chat with Wendy Whiteley and the effect on Griffiths of Brett’s two winning paintings (1976, 1978) and what they portray of Whiteley’s mental health is also a highlight as is Griffith’s visit to Molly Meldrum’s house to find an early Archibald portrait of him – the visit is poignant and beautiful.

There’s also a strong interview with 1996 winner, Wendy Sharpe (who we love!) in discussion around the inequity experienced by women artists throughout Archibald history. Only ten women have won so far in 100 years with Nora Heysen’s win at age 27 in 1938 being one of the most scandalous. Who knew they had trolls in those days, and yes, she was absolutely vilified by the arts patriarchy and lost all confidence in herself.

Max Meldrum Self-portrait at 75, Archibald Prize 1949 finalist. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Marshall Bequest Fund 1977 © Estate of Max Meldrum; Wendy Sharpe Self-portrait as Diana of Erskineville, Archibald Prize 1996 winner. Wendy Sharpe.

Artwork Credit: Left to right: Max Meldrum Self-portrait at 75, Archibald Prize 1949 finalist. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Marshall Bequest Fund 1977 © Estate of Max Meldrum; Wendy Sharpe Self-portrait as Diana of Erskineville, Archibald Prize 1996 winner. Private collection © Wendy Sharpe.

 

Ben Quilty, sometimes Archibald Prize judge and winner of the 2011 prize with his stunning portrait of his friend Margaret Olley probably sums it up best when asked by Griffiths – what makes a great portrait?

‘It’s much more than a likeness, a good portrait is about a sensation. It’s about the essence of that human.’

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Finding the Archibald
ABC TV iview
Archie 100 exhibition on now at the AGNSW (5 June – 26 September)