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Archie 100

A Century of the Archibald Prize

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The art world

The art world

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The art world

Art critics, gallerists, curators, museum directors, collectors and patrons have been frequent subjects of Archibald portraits since 1921. The movers and shakers of the art world have also played a seminal role in the success of the prize over the past hundred years. Their support of portraiture through the decades, when many questioned the relevancy of the genre, has been instrumental in its survival. The Archibald’s most prevalent subject – excluding self-portraits – is the ebullient, sometimes divisive, gallerist Ray Hughes, who appeared 14 times from 1974 until his death in 2017.

The enduring friendships between Archibald artists and those who support their creative endeavours are made tangible through many of these works. Other portraits record these champions of art, who have fostered and promoted the skills and talents of artists in both Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, while acknowledging the achievements of Australia’s most famous and enduring portrait award as it celebrates its centenary.

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Ivor Hele (1912–93), 'Laurie Thomas' 1951, oil on hardboard, Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased 1951 © the artist's estate. Photo: AGNSW, Jenni Carter
Ivor Hele, winner Archibald Prize 1951

Laurie Thomas

Laurie Thomas (1915–74) – art critic, gallery director, journalist and editor – was very pleased with the way Ivor Hele had portrayed him in this winning portrait, apparently declaring at the time, ‘It really is a perfect portrait. It really flatters me’. Hele was already an acclaimed war artist and this, his first Archibald win, plus a subsequent four during the 1950s, ensured his reputation and success as a master draughtsman and painter of the human form. Taking only two days to complete, the portrait demonstrates Hele’s remarkable abilities in observation and execution, and his skill at quickly and accurately rendering his sitter’s appearance.

At this time, Thomas had returned to Melbourne from overseas and, after working as an art critic with The Herald, had taken up the role as assistant director to Daryl Lindsay at the National Gallery of Victoria. Thomas had also been researching for the Jubilee Exhibition of Australian Art to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Commonwealth of Australia, for which he travelled around the country to meet with artists. Perhaps on a research visit to South Australia is when Thomas would have posed for this portrait, as a work by Hele was included in the exhibition. Hele always required his portrait subjects to sit for him at his Aldinga studio.

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Andrew Sibley (1933–2015), 'Dr Gertrude Langer' c1960, oil on composition board, Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, gift of Andrew and Irena Sibley 1996 © the artist's estate. Image courtesy Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art. Photo: Natasha Harth
Andrew Sibley, Archibald Prize 1960

Dr Gertrude Langer

With the rise of Nazism in Germany and the increasing threat to Jews, Austrian-born Dr Gertrude Langer (1908–84) fled Vienna in 1938, aged 30, and settled in Brisbane with her husband. She found a remarkably conservative art scene in the city, compared to Europe. With a background in art history, Langer made it her mission to promote and support contemporary Australian art and artists as well as educate the wider Australian public on art.

Initially conducting private introductory courses on art history and appreciation in her home, Langer went on to become ‘Brisbane’s authority on art’ as chief art critic for The Courier Mail from 1956 to 1984. Langer’s discerning and encouraging voice did much to foster a fertile artistic atmosphere and community. After viewing Andrew Sibley’s first solo exhibition in 1960, she commented that the artist was ‘a figurative expressionist painter […] concerned with the predicaments and anxieties of man in our world’.

Sibley is associated with the 1960s ‘Brisbane School’, along with his friend Jon Molvig (who won the 1966 Archibald Prize and is also included in Archie 100). This portrait is typical of Sibley’s stylised and gestural works of that time, with paint applied with a palette knife or scraper to manipulate and layer the work’s surface.

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Mary Cecil Allen (1893–1962), 'Portrait of Hilda Elliott' c1925, exhibited as 'Mrs RD Elliott', oil on canvas, Mildura Arts Centre Collection, Hilda Elliott Bequest 1970 © the artist's estate. Photo: AGNSW, Diana Panuccio
Mary Cecil Allen, Archibald Prize 1925

Portrait of Hilda Elliott

The subject of this portrait by Mary Cecil Allen is Hilda Elliott (1882–1970) who, with her husband, entrepreneur and politician Robert Dunlop Elliott, was a founding benefactor of the Mildura Arts Centre, Victoria. Their significant private collection, which Robert bequeathed to Mildura in 1944, included works by Sir William Orpen and Sir Frank Brangwyn. Further works were also bequeathed by Hilda in 1970. Hilda – daughter of eminent politician and newspaper proprietor Theodore Fink – was very active in her husband’s ambitions and endeavours, and the couple played an important role in Melbourne’s cultural life. Hilda is depicted in what appears to be Allen’s studio, her relaxed pose suggesting a close friendship between the two women.

By 1925, Allen was highly regarded as a painter, particularly of portraits, and as a lecturer on art. Robert had instigated and funded a series of lectures in the 1920s held at the National Gallery of Victoria, some of which Allen presented. Allen’s early paintings, including this portrait, reveal a more conservative approach, reflecting the influence of her studies with Bernard Hall, and the tonalist teachings of Max Meldrum in the early 1920s. However, Allen soon became a strong advocate of modern art, eventually leaving Australia for America in 1927 to become a respected art educator.

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Eric Smith (1919–2017), 'Rudy Komon' 1981, oil on canvas, Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased 1982 © the artist's estate. Photo: AGNSW, Diana Panuccio
Eric Smith, winner Archibald Prize 1981

Rudy Komon

‘It is a marvellous pose. Rudy is always like that,’ commented then Art Gallery of New South Wales director Edmund Capon about the portrait of vivacious Sydney art dealer and gallery director Rudy Komon (1908–82). Eric Smith was 62 years old at the time and had been exhibiting with Komon for over 20 years.

The win created controversy when it was revealed that the portrait resembled a photograph of Komon taken in 1974, allegedly breaching the Archibald Prize’s rule of entry that the portrait be painted from life. John Bloomfield, whose 1975 winning portrait of film director Tim Burstall had been disqualified when it was revealed it had been painted from a photograph, sued for the return of the award plus interest. There were distinct differences between the cases, however. Bloomfield had never met his subject and had painted the portrait directly from a magazine image. Smith did admit that he had seen and used a photograph but that he had used other sources as well, including multiple sittings with Komon, whom he knew very well and had painted frequently over the years. The Bloomfield case was subsequently dismissed and Smith retained his win.

The Gallery went on to acquire the painting with additional funds contributed by Komon.

Not on display at Cairns Art Gallery

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Vicki Varvaressos (born 1949), 'Frank Watters' 1980, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, courtesy the CBUS Collection of Australian Art © the artist. Image courtesy CBUS Collection of Australian Art
Vicki Varvaressos, Archibald Prize 1980

Frank Watters

Predominantly a figurative and abstract painter, Vicki Varvaressos was hard-up when she decided to enter one of her first portraits into the Archibald Prize, hopeful she might win the $3500 prize money. The subject is Frank Watters (1934–2020), a passionate and influential art dealer and co-director of Watters Gallery, which was a stalwart of the Sydney art scene from 1964. Holding her first solo show at the gallery in 1975, Varvaressos remained part of its stable of artists until it closed in 2018. When Watters died, he was widely remembered for his loyalty to artists, his ethics and his advocacy for experimental art practice.

Varvaressos wrote:

I painted Frank in his apartment. He had just had his chair upholstered and I included a few of his many colourful objects. His walls (until recently) were always painted pink. When I was reminded of this painting decades later, I was surprised at the bright colours as I often am when seeing my early work. I was also struck by the slightly melancholic air about Frank. Although I had not been aware of it at the time, I later came to think that it captured something about him.

That year was the second time no award was given (the first in 1964), with the trustees deciding to withhold the prize.

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Caroline Williams (born 1945), 'Mr Georges Mora' 1988, exhibited as 'Georges Mora', oil on canvas, Pictures Collection, State Library Victoria © the artist. Image courtesy State Library Victoria
Caroline Williams, Archibald Prize 1988

Mr Georges Mora

Originally from Aotearoa New Zealand, Caroline Williams settled in Melbourne in 1981 after living in London and Sydney. The subject of this portrait is influential art dealer and patron Georges Mora (1913–92), whom Williams married in 1985.

In this portrait, Williams has shrewdly referenced James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s famous 1871 portrait of his mother, Arrangement in grey and black no 1. Although similar in some ways – the pose, pared back composition and neutral colour scheme – we can sense both the artist’s and sitter’s playful and satirical humour beneath the formal stylisation. Mora’s knowing and mischievous gaze, slight smile and smart suit with pink tie allude to his renowned European style and charm.

Mora fled Nazi Germany for Paris in the early 1930s and became involved with the French Resistance. He emigrated to Australia with his first wife Mirka (the couple separated in 1970 and later divorced), arriving in Melbourne in 1951. Mora established himself as an art dealer and restaurateur and became a leading figure on the national art scene, founding Tolarno Galleries in 1967. The year of this portrait, Mora helped organise the Australian Contemporary Art Fair and was appointed chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government.

In 2006, Williams created the Georges Mora Foundation and Fellowship, which provides support and promotion of contemporary art and artists in Australia.

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Ian Smith (born 1950), 'Ray Hughes having pre-dinner drinks with Ambroise Vollard and Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler' 2003, oil and acrylic on canvas, private collection, Brisbane © the artist. Photo: AGNSW, Diana Panuccio
Ian Smith, Archibald Prize 2003

Ray Hughes having pre-dinner drinks with Ambroise Vollard and Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler

Between 1977 and 2008, Ian Smith entered approximately 20 portraits of his art dealer and close friend, gallery owner Ray Hughes (1946–2017), in the Archibald Prize. This was the eighth and last time one of these entries was selected.

In this portrait, Hughes is accompanied by two of his heroes, Ambroise Vollard and Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, art dealers for Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso, who were part of a seminal shift in art history – the beginnings of modernism. Smith said:

I think Ray too is always trying to change things, to reinvent himself and look for the new in art. I think he’d really have liked to have lived in that era.

A key figure within the art community for more than 45 years, Hughes is credited as instrumental in introducing contemporary Chinese art to Australian audiences, as well as promoting art from Africa, Papua New Guinea and Aotearoa New Zealand. He was, likewise, passionately committed to the work of the many Australian artists he represented. Appearing in the Archibald on 14 occasions – including portraits by Lewis Miller (1990), Lucy Culliton (2011) and Jun Chen (2009, 2017) – Hughes once commented:

Being an art dealer is not about selling things. It’s about somehow acquiring a bunch of things that are worth considering. Why can this stuff keep you involved for 40 years? Because it means something.

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Hong Fu (born 1946), 'Dr Joseph Brown' 2008, oil on linen, courtesy the CBUS Collection of Australian Art © the artist. Photo: AGNSW, Mim Stirling
Hong Fu, Archibald Prize 2008

Dr Joseph Brown

Born in Poland, Joseph Brown (1918–2009) migrated to Australia in 1933 and went on to become a prominent art dealer and advocate for artists. Over the decades he assembled one of the finest art collections in Australia, which he generously donated to public collections throughout the country. The Joseph Brown Collection at the National Gallery of Victoria, which includes 150 works, is one such example.

Chinese-born, Melbourne-based artist Hong Fu met Brown at the opening of one of his exhibitions, where Brown approached Fu to paint his portrait. Fu said of his subject:

I liked him straight away. I had a strong impression of a very special character. In the portrait I focus on the hands and eyes. Although he is 90, he has very strong, sharp eyes – which is why he can find so many beautiful artworks. He knew which were good and which were not.

The background in this work shows a painting by Brown, an artist himself, with the straight road reflecting his lifelong passion for and commitment to art, and the floating golden cloud signifying spiritual guidance on his journey.

Hong Fu is a finalist in the 2021 Archibald Prize with his portrayal of Professor Mabel Lee.

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Natasha Bieniek (born 1984), 'Wendy Whiteley' 2016, oil on wood, collection of the artist © the artist. Photo: AGNSW, Mim Stirling
Natasha Bieniek, Archibald Prize 2016

Wendy Whiteley

Renowned for her meticulously detailed and lustrously painted miniatures, Natasha Bieniek creates artworks that push the boundary between scale and representation. Her highly commended portrait of Wendy Whiteley (born 1941) shows her in her ‘secret garden’ – a quiet nook of the lush public oasis that she created near her home in the Sydney suburb of Lavender Bay. Trained as an artist herself, Whiteley was an important muse of her husband Brett Whiteley (a two-time Archibald winner). She is also a curator and an esteemed arts patron; she established the Brett Whiteley Foundation in 1995.

Bieniek says she first met Wendy Whiteley at a dinner held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales:

I recognised her instantly. After our first conversation, I knew that I had to paint her. I’d spent the last 18 months painting inner-city landscapes and I couldn’t believe that she had spent more than 20 years transforming unused railway land into a living sanctuary … Wendy has suffered much tragedy and hardship in her life but the garden symbolises how incredibly strong-willed and determined she is. It became her salvation and rescued her from a very dark place. Wendy is an inspiration. She has given the community a great gift that should be celebrated and enjoyed for years to come.

Bieniek is a finalist in the 2021 Archibald Prize with her portrayal of actor Rachel Griffiths.

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