In 1934, the Archibald Prize had its first brush with controversy – just 13 years on from its inception. Henry Hanke, a struggling artist, was awarded the prize for his self-portrait, which was painted on a donated frame using homemade paint pigments. It was the first self-portrait to ever win and was met with a wave of backlash due to Hanke’s relative obscurity in the art world. But it was also met with a crowd of thousands, who flocked to see the portrait on its celebratory tour across New South Wales and Victoria.

In Hanke’s brushstrokes, Australians saw a workman who was a mirror of their perseverance through the Great Depression. Natalie Wilson, Curator of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW), says it’s this ability to ignite joy that keeps the Archibald Prize so current.

“The Archibald is full of good news stories, which is why it is such a popular thing every year. No matter what is happening in the world, every year when the Archibald Prize is announced, everyone looks and gets enjoyment from it,” says Wilson.

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2021 marked the Archibald’s centennial celebrations, and Archie 100 has since appeared at eight galleries across Australia. From October 20, 2023, to January 28, 2024, it will make the final stop of its three-year tour in Canberra at the National Portrait Gallery.

Capturing 100 years of portraiture was never going to be an easy feat. Over 6000 works have appeared in the Archibald Prize, but many have gone undocumented. It was only in 2003 that the AGNSW started photographing each finalist’s portrait, and many of the images that remain aren’t of the highest quality. In 2020, an international appeal for lost portraits saw contributions from libraries, museums, galleries and private collections around the world. As a result, some of the works on display have not been seen since their initial exhibition. It’s a search that’s still ongoing.

“That’s part of the whole Archie 100 project, we’re still looking for work. We encourage people to still come forward. If they’ve got a portrait they think could be an Archibald Prize work, let us know and we’ll add that to the historical record,” says Wilson. Archie 100 is part exhibition, part history project. Wilson emphasises that while approximately a quarter of the artworks are winners, the exhibition also delves into the nooks and crannies of the Prize’s history.

“It was not going to work through a chronological reckoning of the Archibald Prize, just doing one by one each year or just using the winning works, because that would have been a pretty dreary old exhibition,” says Wilson.

Archie 100 takes visitors on a thematic journey, starting with the inaugural finalists, including two portraits of JF Archibald himself, before continuing to an exploration of self-portraiture through the theme “Wielding the Brush”. Visitors then traverse the past century as the exhibition explores a total of 11 themes, such as the cult of celebrity, war and its aftermath, and the Archibald’s biggest controversies.

At the NPG, visitors will notice distinct ties to Canberra itself, particularly within a section titled “In Polite Conversation”. This theme explores the social influence of politics and religion over the past century. It features work such as the 1979 portrait of John Howard by Josonia Palaitis.

“The head-turning portrait of John Howard, seated on a bench in a Hawaiian shirt against a red brick wall wearing sandals – people walk past that portrait and are just shocked that that is a portrait of the man that they knew as John Howard,” says Wilson. “There are a lot of portraits that will make people do a double take.”

Canberrans may also recognise a portrait of Paul Beadle, the sculptor who created Canberra’s Australian-American memorial which features an eagle atop a 79-metre-tall obelisk. This grey-toned, geometric portrait painted by Jon Molvig was a 1955 finalist.

“The Archibald Prize is current, and portraiture is current. And I think that’s the most exciting thing about what the Archibald Prize brings to people in Australia,” says Wilson. “It made people more aware of portraiture as a way of presenting the face of Australia.”

Archie 100 runs from October 20, 2023 to January 28, 2024 at the National Portrait Gallery. Tickets are now available.

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