Rachel Pupazzoni

The Archibald Prize: my review

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I recently made my way to the Art Gallery of New South Wales to look at the annual Archibald Prize exhibition.

The Archibald is given to the best portrait each year.  The subjects of the works are normally ‘distinguished’ (read ‘somewhat famous’) people.

The trustees of the gallery choose the winner.  They’ve been doing it since 1921 when the competition began.  It’s named after JF Archibald (a journalist who created the Bulletin magazine and later was a trustee of the gallery) who wanted to encourage portraiture, support artists and ensure great Australians’ faces were immortalised in art.

There’s also the Packing Room prize, chosen by the staff who unpack and hang all the works.  That tradition started in 1991.  Before that though, in 1988, the People’s Choice award was created.

So, this year’s Archibald went to Louise Hearman who painted Barry Humphries.  It’s oil on masonite and is 69.5cm tall and a metre wide.  This is her first entry every into the competition.



A woman and her daughter gaze at the winning entry by Louise Hearman 

I like how this piece is all about Barry.  His image appears almost luminescent against the glossy black background.  His face looks warm, understanding, inviting.  Exactly how many people I’m sure imagine Barry Humphries.


‘Barry’ by Louise Hearman

I like the simplicity of this work.  It’s such a contrast to the characters Barry Humphries plays.  The glasses, purple hair and bright clothes of Dame Edna are nowhere in sight here.


Simple and beautiful.


The Packing Room prize went to Betine Fauvel-Ogden for her work featuring celebrity chef George Calombaris.  The work is oil on linen and is 124.5cm tall and 1.1m wide.  This is her first time entering the competition.

George Colombaris

‘George Calombaris, masterchef’ by Betine Fauvel-Ogden


I used to love the TV show Masterchef.  This year is the first time I haven’t watched the series.  No real reason why.  Just life and my changing TV viewing habits.  On the show George Calombaris appears to be the junior of the judges.  Mostly because of his age and size really.  This painting depicts him as a tough kind of guy.  He means business.  I’m sure this is an accurate representation of him, but I feel like that’s not the George we see on TV.  I like that we’re seeing this side of him.  Because no doubt it’s those ‘tough’ qualities that has enabled him to have his success.

I love the golden yellow behind him in this painting.  It’s warm and inviting.  A nice contrast to the expression on his face. I also like the bright beads on his wrist.  It brings in another side of his personality.  He’s more than a chef.

The People’s Choice winner is announced in early September.  I, like many others, cast my vote after looking at all the finalists.

People's Choice

Visitors voting for their favourite entry in this year’s Archibald Prize

My pick this year is ‘Deng’ by Nick Stathopoulos.


Perfection in my eyes

The painting looks like a photograph.  (It reminds me of the painting of Asher Keddie a couple of years ago that also looked like a photograph). It’s breathtaking.  I know I was not alone in loving this work.  Many people around me commented on how great it is.

You may not know Deng Adut’s story.  He was a refugee from Sudan.  A former child soldier, he put himself through law school at Western Sydney University (he was featured on an ad for the uni which you may have seen on social media) and is now a refugee advocate and community leader.  It took Stathopoulos four months to paint this image using acrylic and oil on linen.  It’s 1.37m by 1.37m.

The artist says, “You really need to have the subject there in front of you to capture that life-spark and commanding presence.  Those eyes, those scars, tell a story no ad could ever convey.”

It’s a stunning piece of work.

I liked a lot of the works.  Here are a few more of my favourites.

The usuerpers

‘The usurpers (self portrait)’ by Michael McWilliams

This portrait is pretty incredible.  It depicts introduced plants and animals, the artist says have damaged our environment, fashioned into a self portrait.  It’s a cool idea.

Michael says, “I chose to paint a self-portrait as I thought it unfair to ask any individual to be included in a painting called “the usurpers”.”

It’s acrylic on linen and is 2m by 1.6m.


‘The cost’ by Abdul Abdullah

The story of this painting is what really drew me in.  I like the subject’s face, the sadness it shows.  I also like the use of colour in this work.  Craig Campbell was a police officer working on the day of the Cronulla riots.  He saved the lives of two people that day.  Later, he was denied a bravery award, he lost his home, his marriage fell apart and he now suffers PTSD.

Abdul says, “I didn’t want to paint him as a knight in shining armour, but rather as he is: a rough, battle-hardened old warrior who lives with the ghosts of a lifetime of trauma.”

It’s oil and resin on board and is 180cm wide.

There's no humour in darkness

‘There’s no humour in darkness’ by Kirsty Neilson

The sadness in this painting is so confronting.  A man we see on our TV screens, Garry McDonald, so happy and making us laugh, is not always like that. This painting shows that so clearly, but compassionately.

Kirsty says, “Garry graciously invited me down to his home in Berry where we walked around his beautiful property and talked. This portrait represents the state of never thinking you’re good enough. Anxiety and depression take you to such a dark place, which is illustrated by the use of black spray paint for the background.”

It’s oil and spray paint on canvas and is 193cm by 159cm.

Wendy Whitely

‘Wendy Whitely’ by Natasha Bieniek


Don’t be fooled by the lack of scale here.  This painting is actually tiny.  The artist has so meticulously painted such fine detail in this work.  Look at those leaves, the flowers, the hair.  I love the subject’s face here.  There’s a smoothness to it.

Natasha says. “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.”

It’s oil on wood and is 13.5cm by 18.5cm.  (See, tiny!)

I hope you enjoyed this virtual tour of some of my highlights of the Archibald Prize finalists for 2016.  You can see all the finalist entries on the gallery’s website.

Please let me know your favourite work.


Author: rachelpupazzoni

I'm a journalist living in Sydney.

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