Sydney artist Mitch Cairns has won the $100,000 2017 Archibald Prize with a portrait of his partner, fellow artist Agatha Gothe-Snape.
The colourful work has cartoon-like quality with echoes of Picasso’s cubist portraits and Matisse. It’s the fourth time Cairns has been a finalist in the annual exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW and his win was widely expected. His 2014 and 2015 entries of Reg Richardson and Peter Powditch were highly commended.
Today, Jun Chen was highly commended for his portrait of former gallery owner Ray Hughes.
Cairns says he painted Gothe-Snape in her “‘uncomfortably comfortable’ pose” on their rumpled rug at home.
The winner is chosen by the Gallery’s Board of Trustees, who include artist Ben Quilty, AMP chairman Catherine Brenner and Gretel Packer.
Quilty later made his views clear about the winner of the Wynne Prize.
— Ben Quilty (@BenQuilty) July 28, 2017
ANZ chairman David Gonski is the Trust’s president and said the judging today “was a harmonious process”.
“There were many great Archibald contenders this year, but it was the skill and sensitivity of Mitch’s portrait which left a significant impression on us all,” he said.
Gallery director Michael Brand called the work sensitive, with “playful complexity”, while the curator of Australian art, Anne Ryan, said the work had an economical use of palette and line.
“There is a clarity to the collection of objects surrounding Agatha that highlights the domestic nature of the portrait, revealing tell-tale marks of the couple’s home life,” she said.
While the colourful work will undoubtedly be popular, it also hints at the most famous controversy in the Archibald’s 94 year history.
In 1943, William Dobell won with a portrait of fellow artist Joshua Smith. (Artists painting each other is an Archibald tradition – this year 19 of the 43 finalist portraits feature artists).
But Dobell’s portrait was accused of painting a caricature, and legal action was launched against the artist and the Gallery’s trustees by “concerned citizens”, including two fellow Archibald entrants. Dobell won the case and it paved the way for a more modernist approach to portraiture – in 2012 Tim Storier won with a self portrait that lacked his face – but the picture destroyed the friendship between Dobell and his sitter. Nearly half a century later, Smith called the issue “a curse, a phantom that haunts me. It has torn at me every day of my life”.
There’s unlikely to be such a bitter falling out between Cairns and Gothe-Snape, but the decision of the trustees judging Australia’s most popular art exhibition will do doubt stir up debate about the winning work.
Among the other prize winners today, Betty Kuntiwa Pumani from Antara in South Australia took out the Wynne Prize for a painting of her grandmother’s Anangu country, while first-time finalist Joan Ross scored the Sulman Prize for her mixed media work “Oh history, you lied to me”.