The plague of art prizes in Australia
I am unfamiliar with any other country in the world where art prizes are so numerous and play such a public role in the art scene as in Australia. Is there any other country where there is a portrait prize that stops a nation?
In Britain, the Turner Prize with a purse of £40,000, has been hyped to the rafters, but apart from a bit of ridicule from the tabloids, it is only big news or the subject of derision in art circles.
On my count, there are somewhere about 548 art prizes in Australia, although the listing on the website seems to include a couple that are somewhat moribund and a few that have been suspended, but still over 500 art prizes must be a bit of an overkill.
Obviously not all art prizes have been created equal and a win in the Archibald will bring more money and clout for the artist than the Hahndorf Academy Adelaide Hills Art Prize, but Australia’s appetite for art prizes appears insatiable.
Despite the plethora of art prizes, as a phenomenon in Australian art it has been inadequately studied with the only, almost-comprehensive study of which I am aware, by Dr Thea Exley in 2000, titled Patronage by proxy: art competitions in Australia during the twentieth century.
Otherwise there is no shortage of references to art prizes, annual catalogues devoted to the prizes or individual publications devoted to the history of specific prizes such as the Archibald, Blake or the Dobell.
What makes for a successful art prize competition? A generous purse may make it more attractive, but it is not a deal clincher.
The Archibald has a winner’s purse of $100,000, while the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize is $150,000, but winning the latter hardly rates a mention, a blip on an artist’s c.v., while the Archibald remains a career highlight and in many instances has launched or relaunched an artist’s career.
The calibre of the judges also seems to make little impact, for the Archibald it is the trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, many of whom are there, quite appropriately, because they are people of influence or have particularly deep pockets, rather than any knowledge of art.
The Moran Prize, particularly in recent years, has had highly qualified judges, but still it remains the neglected portrait prize. Controversy is great for the profile of an art prize, but someone really has to care about it in the first place for decisions to be controversial, otherwise it becomes a parochial in-house skirmish.
Negative criticism is a must for art prizes to flourish, but this has really very little impact – the crowds still come and the art critics are ignored.
This year’s Archibald, with its 43 finalists, is as disappointing and a non-event as most of the Archibald shows of the previous few years.
The winning entry, Mitch Cairns’ portrait of his partner Agatha Gothe-Snape, is an eye-catching, highly decorative pastiche of a Matisse-inspired formula. It is neither particularly interesting nor particularly adventurous, but Cairns, a local Sydney artist in his early 30s, has become a regular in the Archibald and had earlier secured the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship. It is a clever, decorative painting that will be viewed as sufficiently progressive to keep the critics at bay, yet sufficiently safely anchored in early modernism not to antagonise the establishment.
In this year’s selection, Tony Albert is one of the few conceptually adventurous portraits, while Nicholas Harding, Marcus Wills and Noel Thurgate have painted three of the most accomplished portraits.
Madeleine Winch, Prudence Flint and Kate Beynon, are all artists who have their own peculiar and idiosyncratic visual language and have in each instance slightly extended their lexicon.
A newcomer to the art prize circuit is the Hadley’s Art Prize in Hobart, which commenced in July 2017 and, as far as I am concerned, has been flying under the radar despite its exceptionally generous prize purse of $100,000. It has a somewhat clunky theme: ‘History and place: For the best portrayal of the Australian landscape which acknowledges the past’.
Named after the vintage Hadley’s Hotel in Hobart, the prize is yet to receive traction in the art world and although the 41 finalists produce a credible field, it is not of the calibre that would reflect the value of the prize. The winner is Peter Mungkuri from South Australia with his Ngura Wiru, which is a good, sprawling ink drawing of his home country. For me, the main highlights of this prize include Karen Casey’s golden glowing image of the land as history and memory in Mapping Time, a superb Ray Arnold etching diptych, Elsewhere world/Prospect and refuge II, Susanna Castledon’s Rottnest Sunrise with its striking play of coloured gesso on paper, Sue Lovegrove’s … and all hands danced together and a typically quirky Guan Wei, Reflection 5, where personal histories combine with general histories and observations.
Down the road in Hobart, at the Colville Gallery in Salamanca Place, is the Lloyd Rees Art Prize with a much more modest purse of $20,000, but which arguably has attracted a stronger field than the Hadley Prize. This year the winning entry is a lovely small glowing oil painting by Philip Wolfhagen, Transitory Light. With at least half a dozen art prizes in Tasmania, the island is well served with these sporting fixtures of the art world.
With such a crowded field of hundreds of art prizes and competitions in Australia and with the appetite for them not diminishing, I cannot but wonder why they should remain so popular with patrons, artists and the public.
The last two categories are easiest to explain – artists are desperate for money and recognition, while the public are drawn to a game where they can argue with the judges’ pronouncements and generally own the whole art process.
The more perplexing is the role of the patron. Certainly, in the 1960s and 1970s when the whole art prize phenomenon exploded in its popularity, patrons quite often struck a profitable deal through the art prizes with acquisitive awards with modest purses – the organisers would capitalise on the publicity and would pocket the work for what was often a bargain basement price.
Today, frequently the prizes are substantial and, even if they are acquisitive, as in the case of the Hadley Prize, their value easily eclipses the price of the work. With such a proliferation of landscape art prizes, publicity is limited.
Outside the art community, who would know about the Fleurieu Art Prize for Landscape worth $65,000, the Glover Prize for landscape painting in Hobart of $50,000, the Wynne Prize for landscape of $50,000 or the Tattersalls Landscape Art Prize worth $30,000 with its successful touring exhibition?
Is it possible that there could be smarter and more effective ways for patrons to channel patronage into the arts than to constantly organise art prizes?
Art and Revolution
The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 was one of the most momentous events of the 20th century. It reshaped almost every aspect of our lives – politically, socially and culturally – and now, exactly a hundred years later, we can pause and examine its heritage.
In Europe, the Royal Academy held its blockbuster exhibition Revolution: Russian art 1917-1932, the British Library its Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths show, Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin mounted its major 1917: Revolution: Russia and Europe exhibition and there is a plethora of exhibitions around the world including The Museum of Modern Art’s landmark exhibition A Revolutionary Impulse: The rise of the Russian avant-garde in New York.
In Australia cultural celebrations of the Russian revolution are more muted with an exhibition of Russian revolutionary graphics opening at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra in late August, drawing on its internationally significant holdings of Russian avant-garde art, and a big exhibition Call of the avant-garde: Constructivism and Australian art at the Heide Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne.
Constructivism was the art movement of the Bolshevik revolution, whose ideology reflected that of the fledgling socialist state, and whose forms swept into every aspect of cultural production including typography, book design, poster art, architecture, furniture, ceramics, textiles, theatre stage sets, cinematography, music, poetry as well as painting, sculpture and printmaking. For example, when the new Soviet state exhibited at the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes in Paris in 1925 the Soviet Pavilion was designed by the constructivist architect Konstantin Melnikov, while for the interior Aleksandr Rodchenko designed a constructivist workers’ club.
Constructivism was at the service of the revolution and the Soviet state, so that El Lissitzky’s famous lithographic poster, Drive the red wedge into the whites, 1920, commissioned by the Political Department of the Western Front, in many ways sums up the essence and principles of constructivism. If we examine this civil war image – the graphic elements are simple and geometric in character. The black and white trapezoidal areas are obliquely separated. A sharp aggressive red triangle – symbolic of the red army, literally deflowers the broken white circle (the tsarist army) – the simple sans serif lettering, obliquely placed in relation to the total geometry of the poster – reads "with the red wedge, destroy the whites" i.e. the Bolshevik army drives the red wedge into the ranks of the whites (also in Russian there is an alliterative quality in the words).
Although economically the young Soviet state was a basket case with sanctions and economic blockade imposed by the surrounding imperialist powers, culturally it was a superpower and constructivism was a subversive export designed to spread the Communist revolution to the rest of the world.
Soviet constructivist artists and their fellow travellers infiltrated the revolutionary Bauhaus in Germany and before long Kurt Schwitters and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy converted to Constructivism mainly through contact with El Lissitzky. Moholy-Nagy wrote in 1922 in his article ‘Constructivism and the Proletariat’:
"Everyone is equal before the machine. I can use it, so can you ... There is no tradition in technology, no class consciousness. Everybody can be both the machine's master and its slave. This is the root of Socialism ... This is our century: technology, machine, Socialism ... The art of our time has to be functional, precise, all-inclusive. It is the art of Constructivism ... In Constructivism form and content are one ... Constructivism ... is not confined to the picture frame and pedestal. It expands into industry and architecture, into objects and relationships. Constructivism is the Socialism of vision."
Constructivism and its socialist ideology were inseparable and every constructivist, to the woman – as many prominent Constructivist artists were women, including Lubov Popova, Varvara Stepanova, Olga Rozanova and Alexandra Ekster – felt that they were part of a global revolution.
One difficulty with an exhibition such as the Call of the avant-garde is that most of the Australians were quick to copy the outside forms of Constructivism, but not the ideological content. The great Soviet poet and Constructivist artist and designer Vladimir Mayakovsky was to term such endeavours as “carrot coffee”, a reference to those who captured the outside form, but failed to understand the essence.
The Heide exhibition includes a small handful of Russian works, the Rodchenko painting and photograph on loan from the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the El Lissitzky Proun lithographs from the Art Gallery of Western Australia are the most remarkable of these.
There are also a few superb pieces by Erich Buchholz, a German artist who spent most of his life denying that he was a Constructivist, but came closest to them in spirit and ideology. The rest of the show consists largely of Australian and British artists, of a much later generation, who responded to some of the forms and ideas of Constructivism.
Sally Smart made her own complex and multifaceted ‘Constructivist puppets’ that engage on a number of planes with ideas of Russian feminists, while Justene Williams recreates costumes for Victory over the sun (1913), the Russian Futurist opera written in a transrational language that celebrated the emergence of a number of Constructivist elements.
Ralph Balson, Frank and Margel Hinder, George Johnson and John Nixon in their art, in different ways, celebrate Constructivist forms. The exhibition curators, Sue Cramer and Lesley Harding, adopt a broad-brush definition of Constructivism, so that Inge King, Victor Pasmore, Anthony Caro, Gunter Christmann, Emily Floyd, Meredith Turnbull, Max Dupain, Olive Cotton, Melinda Harper and Raafat Ishak all somehow fit under the Constructivist banner.
Vladimir Lenin and his enlightened Commissar for Education and Culture Anatoly Lunacharsky may not have personally liked or understood Constructivism, but were happy to tolerate artistic diversity. Some of the subsequent Soviet leaders were incapable of accepting anything other than academic realism. Constructivism never died in the Soviet Union, seeking refuge in typography, filmmaking, photomontage and poster art, but it did take root in the West and ultimately permeated many aspects of art and design.
GRISHIN'S ART BLOG
Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA is the author of more than 25 books on art, including Australian Art: A History, and has served as the art critic for The Canberra Times for forty years. He is an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, Canberra; Guest Curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; and Honorary Principal Fellow, Faculty of Arts, at the University of Melbourne.
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