A portrait of the Archibald prize

Published The Age, 2012

Digital photography, smartphones and Facebook ensure portraiture is the most practised and viewed art on earth.

Almost a third of the 41 Archibald prize finalists now showing at Tarrawarra Museum of Art are self-portraits and many others depict fellow artists, friends and family members. It is easier for artists to organise sittings with friends but this trend also "reflects the influence of social media" on attitudes to celebrity, according to Wayne Tunnicliffe, head of Australian art at the Art Gallery of NSW.

The profile of prominent people is an occupation that links journalism and portrait painting. It is sometimes overlooked that a controversial journalist, Jules Francois Archibald, bequeathed the nation its most controversial portrait prize.

"One of art's purest challenges is to translate a human being into words," declared the New Yorker in a 2000 anthology of its best literary profiles but it is arguably a purer challenge to translate a human being into paint.

Raelene Sharp, who won the Packing Room Prize at the Archibalds this year had seven sittings over three months with actor John Wood - considerably more time than journalists generally spend with celebrities. "It's about getting to know a person so you can reveal deeper emotions," she said.

Last year alone the Archibald attracted 147,000 visitors in Sydney and 47,000 in Melbourne. The most popular exhibition of Australian art at the NGV in recent years, "Australian Impressionism", attracted 139,000 people. The Archibald is often criticised for populism but it is constructive to explore what makes it so popular.

Every media outlet knows people are fascinated by images of famous people but, like social media, the Archibald breaks down celebrity and fosters more intimate engagement. Viewers are invited to compare artistic profiles with media profiles. Raelene Sharp gives the normally congenial actor John Wood an unsettling, brooding gaze. Luke Cornish's Father Bob Maguire is genuinely angry.

Voted prizes encourage people to test their responses against the judges' verdicts. The 91-year-old Archibald prize precurses shows like "Australian Idol" but it also gets people to challenge curatorial power. "This is one occasion the fine art world is really opened up to popular assessment," observed Victoria Lynn, director of Tarrawarra Museum of Art. "I wish it was more exposed."

The Archibald also presents a great range of styles "from the gestural to the symbolic and the hyper-real to the pop," as Lynn noted. The range is deliberate according to Tunniclife, who observed the NSW art gallery trustees make their final selections this year. This creates another bridge for the quiet majority still catching up with the abstract experiments of twentieth century art. Personal background stories about subject and artist create further access.

Portraiture invites viewers to get to know a work of art as if it was a person and to see a person as a work of art. And today, people are readier to participate in art, criticism and portraiture.

Yarra Glen resident, Raelene Sharp originally invited Healesville identity John Wood to sit as part of an "Archibald-themed" portrait class held at nearby ACME gallery. A "Not the Archies" exhibition this year attracted 300 portraits by residents that now hang in shop windows throughout Healesville and Yarra Glen. Large prints of the 41 finalists were exhibited at Chirnside Park Shopping Centre.

ACME gallery hosts an exhibition of photographic portraits by James Calder and David Roberts that includes portraits of Frank Woodley and the Dalai Lama. Extending the democracy of the Archibalds, the Hidden Faces of the Archibalds at the Melbourne Hilton on South Wharf, presents 39 of the best Victorian artists rejected by the NSW gallery trustees.

The National Portrait Gallery is touring two fine exhibitions - one of southeast Asian portraiture at the McClelland gallery and a stunning exhibition at the Ian Potter Museum of Art that features portraits of psychologists and mentally disturbed people by some of Australia's greatest portraitists including Joy Hester, Judy Cassab and Mike Parr. Albert Tucker's portraits of mentally ill soldiers culminate in his 1942 masterpiece of anguish, The Possessed.

The Archibald prize is at Tarrawarra for the last of it's two year tenure before moving to another regional gallery. There has rarely been a better time to explore the art of portraiture in Melbourne.

© Copyright Andrew Bock 2010. All rights protected.