- Darling Portrait Prize 2020. National Portrait Gallery, King Edward Terrace, Parkes Canberra. Closes May 10
There is a plethora of prizes for painted portraits in Australia - I will venture to say - more than in any other country in the world.
I have never known if it was Australia's passion for portraiture that has led to the Archibald or whether it was the runaway success of the Archibald that has bred a passion for portrait prizes. Privately, I suspect it is the latter.
The Darling Portrait Prize has been established in the memory of, and through the generosity of, the National Portrait Gallery's greatest benefactors - the Darlings, especially the late Gordon Darling. He and his wife Marilyn not only partly bankrolled the foundation of the gallery and its early exhibitions, but gave it guidance and steered it through stormy political waters. It is most appropriate for a portrait gallery to commemorate its founders.
The DPP, weighing in at $75,000, has half of the prize purse of the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize of $150,000 and considerably less than the Archibald Prize at $100,000. However, it is more generous than the newly established Brisbane Portrait Prize at $50,000 or The Lester Prize for Portraiture in Perth of $50,000, the Percival Portrait Prize, Townsville of $40,000 and the women's prize for portraiture, The Portia Geach Memorial Award with a prize purse of $30,000.
To enter the DPP is similar to the Archibald, but a bit more restrictive and a bit more expensive. Both portrait prizes are only for paintings by an Australian artist who painted a sitter from life (with the sitter acknowledging in writing that they sat for the portrait). The Archibald permits any medium (for example oil, acrylic, watercolour, mixed media), while the DPP stipulates that the painting must be predominantly in oil, tempera or acrylic (watercolours, works on paper and pastels are not eligible, nor are photographic, sculptural and other portrait media). The Archibald is happy with a three by three metre maximum size, while the DPP permits only half of this, 150cm tall by 150cm wide (including frame). The Archibald charges an entry fee of $50, the DPP fee is $75 and, unlike the Archibald that makes its selection from the paintings in the flesh, the DPP finalists are selected from digital photographs.
In some ways it appears a little anachronistic that a century after the establishment of the Archibald, a new portrait prize in Canberra seeks to tap into the same pool of traditional portraiture. There may be nothing wrong with this and wonderful portraits are still being created by traditional means, but perhaps this is a missed opportunity to try something a little more adventurous in medium and to break free of the traditional Eurocentric conceptual framework. It would be good to include Aboriginal ideas of portraiture as painting country rather than filling in a form from the sitter acknowledging his or her participation. Other attempts to rival the Archibald have failed and most attempts have ended up clinging to the coat tails of its illustrious predecessor.
The 40 finalists in this year's DPP are not an exciting revelation, but quite a predictable mix with, not surprisingly, most of the artists repeat offenders from the other portrait prizes.
There is however one huge advantage for the Canberra prize and this is that it is judged by art professionals - this year Tony Ellwood, the Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, Karen Quinlan, the Director of the National Portrait Gallery and Denise Ferris, Head of the ANU School of Art and Design. In contrast, the Archibald is judged by the 11 trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW, only two of whom are art professionals - Tony Albert and Ben Quilty - the rest may be worthy captains of industry, philanthropists and patrons, as is most appropriate for a Board of Trustees, but hardly competent judges of artistic excellence.
The 40 finalists in this year's DPP are not an exciting revelation, but quite a predictable mix with, not surprisingly, most of the artists repeat offenders from the other portrait prizes. They are sound and competent, but hardly the sort of thing to set Lake Burley Griffin on fire.
The winning entry is Anthea da Silva's portrait of the dancer and founder and first artistic director of the Australian Dance Theatre, Elizabeth Cameron Dalman AOM. It is more of a charcoal drawing touched up with acrylic and oils than a formal portrait. It is a lively characterisation that in terms of its draughtsmanship becomes slightly unravelled in the portrayal of the dancer's legs, where the artist has apparently run out of room and they have become somewhat truncated. The lively face and the sense of a compressed spring in the compositional structure, with the dancer about to leap into action, carries off the general conceit of the work. The dribbles at the bottom, a strategy used by many contemporary portraitists, most memorably by Cherry Hood, here most effectively is employed to remind us of the flatness of the picture plane.
Sean Hutton's portrait of the photographer Tamara Dean is the most effective traditional tonal portrait in the show, masterful, effective and engaging. Built on strong draughtsmanship, Hutton convincingly establishes a psychological awareness of his sitter.
Shirley Purdie, My life La Gilbun, is a wonderful surprise inclusion and I would have thought would be excluded under the DPP rule, "the human figure must predominate in your painting". Here the two miniature figures relate to this Indigenous artist's childhood narrative.
Other strong pieces include Dagmar Cyrulla's A new beginning, Sibone Heary's The In Between, Narelle Zeller's quirky Carma (easily the winner of the photorealist contingent and painted in oils on aluminium), and Natasha Bieniek's matchbox size miniature titled Sleep, apparently a portrait of her husband sleeping.
Todd Simpson's Portrait of Brendan Nelson is more like a public execution with the former director of the Australian War Memorial shown as a paper-thin cut out against a sketch of the memorial.
This is not a bad exhibition, but slightly predictable and underwhelming. If you want to see a really great exhibition of traditional portraiture, you have to trot over to the National Gallery and catch the brilliant Hugh Ramsay show before it closes at the end of this month.