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Australia's greatest living artist, John Olsen, hates the winning Archibald Prize portrait

John Olsen with his 2005 Archibald Prize winning painting ‘Self-portrait Janus-Faced’. He likes this work, obviously. Photo: Rob Elliott/AFP/Getty Images

When Mitch Cairns won the $100,000 2017 Archibald Prize with a portrait of his partner, fellow artist Agatha Gothe-Snape, there was one very prominent artist unhappy with the gallery’s trustees, including chairman David Gonski, who judged the award.

John Olsen, told arts journalist Michaela Boland that the decision was a “disgrace”.

Boland posted a trio of tweets outlining the views of Australia’s greatest living artist, who turns 90 next year.

In comments reminiscent of the 1943 fury over William Dobell’s portrait of fellow artist Joshua Smith, which outraged other entrants who labelled it a caricature, Olsen, described as “furious”, accused the trustees of favouring “conceptual art” over painters.

Here is Boland’s account of the conversation:

Agatha Gothe-Snape by Mitch Cairns © the artist. Photo: Mim Stirling, AGNSW

And here’s the work in question:

As she points out, Olsen has joined the trustees to judge the prize eight times, and one of the great traditions of the annual award is the controversy their decision attracts.

Olsen doubled down when he spoke to The Australian saying it was the worst choice the trustees ever made in the prize’s 96 years, and the portrait is “no good”, lacking depth and structure amid “faux naivety”.

But then the elder statesman of Australia art knows how it feels to be on the receiving end of a less than favourable reception when you win the Archibald. In 2005, Olsen won with “Self-portrait Janus-Faced” (see above) – he only won $35,000, which shows the Archibald is one thing in Sydney keeping pace with the city’s property prices. Then gallery director Edmund Capon described it as “sublime and contemplative”.

But the public were less than impressed when they headed to the Art Gallery of NSW to check it out, with Fairfax Media talking to people who called it “a shocker” and “awful”.

Olsen didn’t submit an entry this year, but the artist is still present thanks to this portrait by Nicholas Harding.

John Olsen AO, OBE by Nicholas Harding © the artist. Photo: Jenni Carter, AGNSW

NOW READ: The winner of this year’s Archibald Prize is a reminder of the competition’s greatest controversy.

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