August 1, 2017

The 2017 Archibald Prize Controversy Explained

Colour Musings

John Olsen says Archibald Prize win is ‘the worst decision I’ve ever seen’ -SMH

It’s not the art world if there isn’t some form of controversy involved. If you saw the above headline recently and wondered what was going on with the Archibald Prize and what the fuss was all about, let’s break it down.

The Archibald Prize is Australia’s most prestigious prize for portraiture with an annual prize of $100,000. This year, the prize was won by Mitch Cairns for his portrait of his wife, Agatha Gothe-Snape.

Agatha Gothe-Snape

 Agatha Gothe-Snape – Mitch Cairns

Cairns references the works of Henri Matisse as inspiration, especially the piece “Harmony in Red (The Red Room)” from which he takes the red blocks of colour, and Matisse’s own portrait of his wife “The Green Stripe” from which he takes inspiration for the green nose.

The Green Stripe

Harmony in Red (Left) and The Green Stripe (Right) -Matisse



The controversy

Enter John Olsen, renowned Australian artist, previous winner of the prize, 3 time Archibald Prize judge, and even the subject of a portrait painting himself.

Olsen believe that awarding the prize to Cairns was the ‘worst decision ever’, a ‘disgrace’ and considered the portrait ‘bland’. In Olsen’s eyes, a worthy prizewinning portrait should provide insight into its subject, and Cairn’s piece ‘lacked analysis’.

“It’s entirely surface, the drawing is just not there, and the structure, which is a summation of what makes a thing good, isn’t there”. -Olsen

Olsen also disputed the comparison to Matisse, stating: “Matisse is to do with hugely sophisticated space.” To Olsen, the portrait lacked depth, structure and instead reflects a sense of ‘faux naivety’ that he did not believe could be sensibly compared to Matisse’s sophisticated works.

So what’s going on?

Did the judges get it wrong? Is there any merit in Olsen’s criticism? Is there, actually, a controversy?

When we take a step back, ultimately what we see here is simply a difference of opinion. The prize was awarded unanimously to Cairns, so Olsen finds himself on the opposite side of the fence. However, criticisms from art world royalty can be harsh, especially one as highly esteemed as Olsen, hence the ‘controversy’.

What is perhaps more interesting (even a little ironic) is Olsen’s celebration of Matisse’s sophistication, especially as Matisse’s own artwork was considered highly controversial for bucking the artistic trends of the early 1900s. At the time, Matisse and his peers were called ‘Fauves’ or ‘wild beasts’ for their unrealistic portrayals of subjects, and his artwork started a movement called Fauvism that celebrated personal expression as one of most important attributes of a painter.

Open Window, Collioure

Open Window, Collioure (1905, Henri Matisse)

Is it possible that, 100 years later, we see the wild beast rear its head again in Mitch Cairns? Over to you Olsen!

In either case, we hope it didn’t put a damper on Cairns’ day, who deserves to be celebrating his win, and we extend our congratulations to him.

What do you think? Do you agree with Olsen? Or do you think that Cairns should have won?


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