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A collage of previous winners of the Archibald Prize
Photograph: Supplied/AGNSW | Edited by Time Out Media/Jack Puglielli

A beginners’ guide to the Archibald Prize (and the Wynne and Sulman Prizes)

You’ll be an Archie pro in no time with this cheat sheet

Alannah Maher
Michelle Wang
Edited by
Alannah Maher
Written by
Michelle Wang
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Whisperings, heated opinions, controversy and some confusion: sounds like the Archibald is here. Have you been yet? What’s this bunch of pompous portraits? Who is Archibald anyway? Before you throw in your two cents on Australia’s most famous art prize, start with our comprehensive guide on how to Archie like a pro.

Archibald: the largest one in the room (literally)

Photograph: AGNSW/Mim Stirling | Excerpt of 'Moby Dickens' by Blak Douglas,

The Archibald has been awarded annually since 1921 (with two exceptions in 1964 and 1980). It has to be painted by an artist resident in Australia and doesn’t have to be, but preferentially is, of someone who is "distinguished in art, letters, science or politics".

And who is Archibald? Good question – JF Archibald (1856-1919) or “Archie” as he was affectionately known, was a former trustee of the Art Gallery of NSW and founder of The Bulletin, an influential Australian political and literary magazine. In his will he made two notable bequests: for the Archibald Fountain in Sydney’s Hyde Park, and the Archibald Prize for Portraiture.

This year’s winner: look up at Blak Douglas’ towering three-metre-tall portrait of fellow Koori artist Karla Dickens, Moby Dickens, the largest entry in this year’s Archibald. It also displays the strength of NSW’s Northern Rivers community on Bundjalung Country, during the disastrous recent floods and their frustration with the government’s crisis relief response.

Douglas is the second Aboriginal artist to win the Archibald Prize in 101 years, after Vincent Namatjira won in 2020. As Douglas said upon receiving the prize, the next step is an “Albo-riginal prime minister” – we’ll be watching this space.

Look out for: some buttocks. That is, the buttocks of Sydney writer Benjamin Law, reimagined as a mischievous and modern portrayal of the goddess of beauty, Venus, by emerging Central Coast based artist Jordan Richardson.

This year, a record 20 Indigenous artists entered the Archibald, and there were 27 Indigenous finalists across all three prizes. The exhibition also includes five exciting works from Studio A, Sydney’s only group studio for artists with intellectual disabilities.

The Packing Room Prize: the other important Archie

Photograph: Supplied/AGNSW | Head packer Brett Cuthbertson is due to retire

The Archibald’s Packing Room Prize is considered just as, if not more important, than the official Archibald Prize winner. The $3000 prize is announced a week before the exhibition opens to the public, and is judged by the art gallery staff who unpack and hang the portraits. This year it was won by Claus Stangl for his 3D-style portrait of New Zealand film director, writer and actor Taika Waititi. The Gallery’s head packer has a rather decisive 52 per cent stake in the vote, and 2022 is a bitter-sweet one for Brett Cuthbertson. It is his final time naming the Packing Room Prize, as he will soon retire after 41 years working at AGNSW.

Wynne: the oldest art prize in Australia

Photograph: Supplied/AGNSW | Excerpt of 'Eora', Nicholas Harding

Wynne, what? Somehow, it’s easy to miss the other two names always written next to the Archibald: the Wynne and Sulman prizes. But we should pay our respects where they are due to the Wynne, the true forebearer of Australian art prizes. The official opening of the Art Gallery in 1897 was accompanied by the first Wynne Prize. It awards the best landscape painting of Australian scenery or figurative sculpture.

This year’s winner: It’s hard to miss Nicholas Harding’s winning painting, Eora, a vast and lush two-by-four-metre landscape. The richly detailed oil painting is both meditative and haunting: leafless fern trunks symbolise the consequences of land-clearing, while dragonflies covertly flit about as figures of transformation and adaptability. Harding is no stranger to the Archibald and Wynne prizes. He previously won the Archibald in 2001 with his portrait of John Bell as King Lear, and is a nine-time Wynne finalist and 19-time Archibald finalist.

Look out for: Juz Kitson’s grotesque, mesmerising sculpture An unwavering truth, She walks in beauty, of the night and all that’s best of dark and bright. In memory of the wildfires. It is an unexpected ode to the charred and dismembered landscape created by Australia’s recent wildfires, beautiful in their twisted remains and resilient re-growth.

Sulman: just dropped a fresh collab

Photograph: Supplied/AGNSW | Excerpt of ‘Raiko and Shuten-dōji’, Clare Healy and Sean Corderio

If the three prizes were siblings, the Sulman Prize would be the unruly and unpredictable youngest. The Sulman has been awarded since 1936 for the best genre painting, subject painting or mural project. It’s the only prize of the three that is not judged by the trustees of the Art Gallery, but an invited artist. This year, Joan Ross (the Sulman winner in 2017) is the judge.

This year’s winner: for the first time, a collaborative duo has won – Clare Healy and Sean Corderio with their kaleidoscopic Raiko and Shuten-dōji. It depicts the folk history battle between the warrior Raiko and the demon Shuten-dōji, but with several twists. One of these is the fact that it is painted on the fuselage of a Vietnam War-era helicopter!

Look out for: Sophie Victoria’s cellophane diatribe on our image-obsessed, photo filter culture The Spectacle; Vincent Namatjira’s post-colonial rewriting of our royal family obsession in The royal tour (the balcony)and Jason Phu’s poetic and irreverent cardboard submission shoot for the stars, aim for the moon.

Some spicy Archie trivia for you

Photograph: Supplied/AGNSW | Excerpt of ‘Mr Joshua Smith’, William Dobell

The Archibald has been plagued by a few controversies and several court cases in its time.

In 1997, a painting by Evert Ploeg of beloved childrens’ television characters the Bananas in Pyjamas was deemed ineligible because it was not a painting of a person.

Perhaps the most famous controversy in Archie history surrounds the 1943 winner. William Dobell's portrait of fellow artist Joshua Smith, titled Mr Joshua Smith was challenged because of claims it was a caricature rather than a portrait, its expressive style being a break from the realism the prize had favoured to that date. The unusual style drew record crowds to the Gallery, and two entrants took (ultimately, unsuccessful) legal action against Dobell and the trustees. 

In 1938, Nora Heysen became the first woman to win the Archibald with a portrait of Madame Elink Schuurman, the French wife of the Consul General for the Netherlands. Artist Max Meldrum publicly criticised the decision, saying that women could not be expected to paint as well as men. Meldrum is said to have declared, “If I were a woman, I would certainly prefer raising a healthy family to a career in art”.

The 1972 winner made a splash first at the Archies, and next at Parliament. After winning the Archibald in 1971, well-known artist Clifton Pugh announced he would be painting “the next prime minister”, Gough Whitlam. He announced this in February, and Whitlam was sworn in that December, by which time the portrait was finished. The expressive piece would become Pugh’s third Archibald-winning work. When Whitlam was controversially dismissed from office in 1975, instead of sitting for an official portrait to hang in Parliament House in Canberra, he requested that Pugh's portrait be hung instead. The portrait remains part of the Parliament House collection to this day.

Feeling smug about your mug? Why not enter a self-portrait in the Archibald? Sydney artist Brett Whiteley controversially did so in 1976. His painting Self-portrait in the studio was a turning point in the Archibald Prize as it challenged traditional tenets of likeness and realism and stretched the definition of portraiture, with his face only making a small appearance in the bottom corner. The painting is now in the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW. Whiteley went on to win the Archibald again in 1978 with Art, life and the other thing – in the same year he also won the Wynne and Sulman Prizes, becoming the first and only artist to win all three awards in one year. Fellow Sydney artist Del Kathryn Barton also won with a self-portrait in 2008. Keep an eye out for the three self-portraits among this year’s finalists.

Our insider's advice

Photograph: Supplied/AGNSW | detail of ‘The Sea Within’, Julia Ciccarone (2021 People's Choice winner)

Vote for your favourite

Don’t forget to leave a vote for the People’s Choice Award on your way out! It was first awarded in 1988, and you’ll often find that its winner is different to the other two portrait awards. Voting closes on July 31.

Figure out how you’re getting there

This one’s a no-brainer, but, a bit of planning helps for getting anywhere in Sydney’s clogged up CBD. If you’re taking a train, you can walk from Museum station. Otherwise just be ready to pay for parking, at quiet times there’s usually some street parking outside the Art Gallery and there’s the pretty affordable Domain Car Park ($10 all day on the weekends!). Weekends and holiday periods are usually the most popular times for people to visit the Art Gallery; late afternoon and midweek sessions generally have a little less demand.

Check out the marvellous rejects 

If you’re rearing for more art adventures, an ‘alternative’ selection of portraits that didn’t make it into the Archibald Prize finalists is exhibited at SH Ervin Gallery in the Rocks as part of Salon des Refusés (May 14-24), which has been held since 1992. Tap Gallery in Surry Hills is also hosting the Real Refuse* (May 21-Jun 5) for the 26th year running, which celebrates the artists who were not selected for Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes.

The Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes are open to visit from May 14 to August 28, 2022, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The Gallery is open every day from 10am to 5pm, and open late until 9pm on Wednesdays. Tickets are timed and start at $22 for adults, you can snap up yours here

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