One predictable thing about Australia's most prestigious art prize is the controversary that will surround each year's winning portrait. The trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW who sit in judgement boast an independence of mind that accompanies their collective decision, but to think the social issues of the day do not colour the choice of finalists and ultimately the winner is to misunderstand the true nature of this most political of competitions.
This year's competition unsurprisingly in such challenging times drew a near record number of entries, from professional portraitists through to the once-a-year amateur painters, from traditional portraits in the style of Hugh Ramsay to the outlandish, intended to solely challenge our thinking, such as the nave portraits of Ramesh Mario Nithiyendra and last year's unsurprising winner, Vincent Namatjira.
In this centenary year of the Archibald, it is no surprise amid the self-congratulation the curators aimed for gender parity for artists selected as finalists: 26 women and 26 men, with female sitters outnumbering the men (although that is not a first). It is also the first time there have been more works by women than men in the combined Archibald, Wynne Prize (for landscape) and Sulman Prize (for genre painting or sculpture).
But against the odds, a portrait favoured by the pundits by Peter Wegner of beloved 100-year-old artist Guy Warren (himself an Archibald winner in 1985) took out this year's prize. Peter Wegner's accomplished portrait is a worthy and perhaps in this context daring winner. Nonetheless, it is undeniably the best portrait in the show. There may be bigger, more courageous paintings on display but Wegner's portrait reminds us of the important ingredients for successful portraiture. A good portrait is a decent likeness, a great portrait gives an insight into the heart and soul of the subject.
Given the AGNSW's fixation with race and gender, shared by the Ballarat Art Gallery and other publicly funded galleries, it may be a long time before another white male artist garners support to win a major prize solely on merit. Regardless of the motivations for selecting portraits worthy of hanging in this prize that has become so important to the Australian psyche, there can be no substitute for rewarding talent. The choice of Peter Wegner's portrait of Guy Warren is no small feat, a victory over political correctness, yes - but controversially this time, the best painting won.
Postscript: The Archibald Prize last toured to Ballarat in 2015, remembered as much for its lack of accomplished works as it was for its diversity and imagination. This year the Archibald Prize exhibition fares much better it can be said and will travel to the Gippsland Art Gallery and run from 8 October to 21 November 2021.