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A portrait by any other name

Grace Johnson explores the Archibald Prize's definition of portraiture

The Archibald Prize has documented the changing face of Australian society. It was first awarded in 1921 after a bequest from J.F. Archibald to support portraiture and the memory of great Australians.

A tradition was born: artists, working mostly on commission, were to paint portraits “of some man or woman distinguished in Art, Letters, Science or Politics”.

This explains the monotonous stream of realistic portraits that dominated the early years of the Prize. Artists used tonal realism and prestigious settings to flatter the subject. Paintings conformed to the award-winning aesthetic and displayed a Victorian sensibility.

Portraiture has changed. Look at any of the 2018 winners and finalists. Even the seemingly traditional works show not only a change in aesthetic but in conceptual thinking: what’s in a portrait?

William Beckwith McInnes was the first to receive the Archibald Prize. His subject, Desbrowe Annear, poses in a prestigious setting. We know he is someone important. The tonal scheme is as serious as his expression.

Another of McInnes’ winning portraits depicts artist Ester Paterson in Silk and lace (1926). The male gaze dominates the conservative image of woman. The pose is haughty and aristocratic. You feel the sense of propriety that dictated women’s lives.

These paintings reflect the Victorian concept of self—you are what you see in the mirror.

William Dobell dramatically shunned this tradition in 1943. He painted Joshua Smith with undeniable elements of caricature and abstraction. Dobell claimed that he retained a certain likeness, but the portrait was so controversial that it went to the Supreme Court for allegedly defaming and satirising the subject.

People asked, “Is this even a portrait?”

Dobell said, “I use an element of distortion in order to make the portrait more like the subject than he is himself.”

Is there such a thing? Can a painting represent a person better than they are? Does it even have to show the person?

Brett Whitely’s painting, Self-portrait in the studio (1976), hardly shows his face—the painting mainly displays his studio. The artist’s surroundings, then, express his character and psychological space. Here, portraiture is less about a scientific likeness and more about personality.

Wendy Sharpe’s Self-portrait as Diana of Erskineville (1996) is a complete image of individuality. She is dressed in thongs, animal print pants, a green bra, and a sultry expression. Her slouched position symbolises indulgence, as well as the Australian sense of informality. The vivid palette is in extreme contrast with the dignified colours of silk and lace, exuding energy and sensuality instead.

Progressing the narrative of portraiture is this year’s winners and finalists—21 out of 58 are self-portraits, double than that of recent years.

There has been an increased fascination with celebrity, certainly, but the rise of social media has given platform for many others to consider themselves celebrity also.

In the beginning, a portrait showed what was socially acceptable and ‘correct.’ Later on, realism gave way to ‘truthful’ abstraction—that is, showing the personality and essence of the sitter. This also meant that the artist had more say in the representation and perception of the sitter.

Selfie culture has seeped through the walls of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, but what it really shows is this: the construction of identity is now in our hands.