The annual media coverage that follows the Archibald Prize – and its portraiture subjects – might make it Australia’s most visible award for painting. But it’s not the oldest.
Pre-dating the Archibald (for portraiture) and the Sulman (for best subject painting, genre painting or mural project), the Wynne Prize recognises the best landscape painting of Australian scenery or the best figure sculpture by an Australian artist. It goes back more than 125 years, when it was first awarded to mark the Art Gallery of New South Wales opening at its present site in The Domain.
When the prize debuted in 1897, it represented the two principal subjects of interest to the art-going public at the time.
This year, gift them a dinner to remember with a Broadsheet Gift Card.SHOP NOW
“Landscape painting was a huge subject for Australian art in the 19th century, and at the cutting edge of what a lot of Australian artists were doing,” says Anne Ryan, curator of Australian art at the Art Gallery of NSW. “That’s when audiences got to know some of our most interesting contemporary artists, like [Arthur] Streeton, [Tom] Roberts and other artists in the Heidelberg School. So it felt like a very current subject for them. And figurative sculpture was also very highly regarded at the time.”
While the criteria have remained the same, the kind of work being entered has evolved dramatically across the decades.
This year’s Wynne Prize showcases a diverse array of 41 finalists chosen from 726 entries. They included Giles Alexander’s painting When the fire came my loss was total, based on a photograph from a NASA satellite depicting smoke from Australia’s 2020 bushfires as seen from space, Louis Pratt’s A very Dutch ghost, which used a concave mirror and custom software to reflect and distort a sculpted skull, and James Powditch’s The Wynne Club Championship, an RSL Club-style honour board naming the prize’s previous winners.
Nearly half of this year’s finalists were Indigenous artists. “They’re painting landscape in a way that’s very different to Western tradition,” says Ryan. “It’s about the same place, it’s just a different way of understanding and being in and of the landscape. Which keeps it very dynamic and interesting.”
This year’s winner of the $50,000 Wynne Prize is Zaachariaha Fielding, an emerging artist who is probably better known as the vocalist in the musical duo Electric Fields. His elaborate acrylic painting Inma captures the movement and sounds of song and dance in his childhood community of Mimili in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands, even including lyrics from the Pitjantjatjara language in the painting itself.
“Inma is a word from his community that means cultural song and dance,” says Ryan. “It’s really a visual rendering of an oral or physical experience, where children are taught their culture and how to preform,. Zaachariaha has only been painting for a short period compared to his performing career, but the knowledge and story in his painting have very deep roots for him. There’s a lot of movement and a lot of song, in terms of text. It’s a very innovative work.”
Judged by the Art Gallery of NSW’s board of trustees that comprises around a dozen members, finalists for the Wynne Prize are decided and displayed alongside those of the Archibald and Sulman Prizes.
“I think they cover a lot of ground,” says Ryan of the tandem honours. “They’re very reflective of what painters are doing out in the world. It continues to remain very current, especially judging by the number of first-timers we get. And also the audiences we get for these three shows proves [their] relevance, year on year.”
Because paintings must be completed within the year-long period prior to the judging, entries are often topical, with recent subjects including the climate crisis and ongoing toll of colonisation. This year, more than half of the Wynne finalists were first-time entrants. But tracking the progress of all its entrants is what keeps Ryan engaged.
“It’s interesting to watch the development of an artist over the years,” she says. “Some artists get better and better, and to observe that is always fascinating.”
That insight will now go on tour. For the first time ever, the Wynne Prize will display this year’s finalists not just in its century-plus home of the Art Gallery of NSW – where they’re currently showing – but around regional New South Wales. Beginning in September and running through mid-2024, the Wynne Prize will make multi-month stops in Moree, Mudgee, Armidale and Wagga Wagga.
“It’s great to have a prize about landscape painting going out into the regions,” says Ryan. “Because of course that’s where much of it is made.”
Broadsheet is a proud media partner of the Art Gallery of NSW.