Portrait of Dorian Gray?

12 01 2013

Princess Catherine, by Paul Emsley. (Image via bbc.co.uk)

Oh dear.

No doubt about it. Portrait painting is an utterly thankless task.

William Dobell found this out the hard way when his controversial painting of artist Joshua Smith won Australia’s foremost portrait prize, the Archibald, in 1943. The decision caused two Royal Art Society members, Joshua Wolinski and Mary Edwards, to take legal action against Dobell and the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Trustees, alleging that the painting was a ‘distorted and caricatured form’ and should not have qualified as a ‘portrait’.

Dobell declared that his approach was not to “copy” something, but “to create something”. He declared: “To me, a sincere artist is not one who makes a faithful attempt to put on canvas what is in front of him, but one who tries to create something which is living in itself, regardless of its subject. So long as people expect paintings to be simply coloured photographs they get no individuality and in the case of portraits, no characterisation.” Photography initiated a revolution in the visual arts. With the rise of a technology that meant a true physical likeness could be captured and preserved for time immemorial, it opened the playing field for visual artists who could play around with physical representation and look beyond and beneath a subject’s surface.


William Dobell, ‘Portrait of an Artist’ (Image via australia.gov.au)

Consider for a moment that this was well before abstract expressionism got an airing here in Australia. It was almost a decade before the landmark exhibition, French Painting Today, brought the work of Picasso, Braque, Léger, Chagall and Matisse to our shores. In that climate, Dobell’s Portrait of an Artist, as innocuous as it looks today, caused an absolute uproar. Fortunately, common sense prevailed, and Justice Roper upheld Dobell’s prize, observing that although the painting was “characterised by some startling exaggeration and distortion… (it) nevertheless bore a strong degree of likeness to the subject.”

Speaking of ‘distortion’, what does any of this mean for the larger-than-life-size official portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in London? Well, there’s certainly nothing controversial about the method or approach the artist has taken. Hell, the first thing that sprang to mind as a point of comparison is the nauseatingly saccharine portrait of myself at the age of 14 with my younger sister drawn in St Mark’s Square in Venice by a pavement artist. A charcoal sketch that I would like to make clear is currently rolled up in a tube in my father’s wardrobe. It is not framed. Or hanging in public. Nor shall it ever be. We just keep it for laughs.

What of the depiction of Catherine? The Duchess declared the portrait to be “just amazing”. Damned by faint praise, perhaps?

Maybe they decided to commission a portrait that would last for a couple of decades. Catherine at the age of 50. Won’t need updating anytime soon, anyway.


A final word on Sam Leach’s Wynne Prize-winning entry

19 04 2010

Here’s a nice, big slice of schadenfreude pie for those of you who are distressed to the point of distraction about Sam Leach’s Wynne-ing streak (pardon the pun – too good to resist).

I should point out that I don’t include myself in that grouping – no matter how you respond to his work, Leach’s victory poses some very interesting questions about what, exactly, constitutes ‘landscape’. But back to the steaming pile of schadenfreude – success in the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes has little or no bearing on an artist’s long-term commercial prospects. During the course of my research, I’ve looked at all of the artists who might be classified ‘contemporary’ (still alive in 1990), who won one or more of the AGNSW prizes. Almost half of the 69 artists who won a single prize have no secondary (auction) market at all. Not a single auction sale. Nix. And these are not emerging artists who wouldn’t be expected to have established a secondary market yet. Most of these are well-established practitioners who won their prize decades ago.

Of the 26 artists who have won two or more of the prizes, the majority have average auction prices in their primary medium (in most cases – painting) that fall in the mid to low four figures (less than $5,000). This includes artists such as Judy Cassab, John Peart, and Salvatore Zofrea. Eric Smith, who won the most prizes (a total of eight), has an average auction price of $1,379. And, in the art market, the absence of demand in the secondary market translates to diminishing commercial prospects. Not that the dash for cash is necessarily foremost in the minds of most, or even many, artists. But you can comfort yourself in the knowledge that untold riches do not flow from a big prize as a matter of course.

Does Sam Leach’s Wynne prize entry suck? The art of appropriation.

15 04 2010

File:Boatmen Moored on a Lake Shore 1668 Adam Pynacker.jpg

Well, yet again we find ourselves in the midst of a full-blown Australian art prize pickle. Not since Bill Dobell caused a fracas with his Archibald prize-winning portrait of Joshua Smith in 1943 (is it a portrait, or is it a caricature?) have so many newspaper column inches been dedicated to a debate about what, exactly, constitutes ‘art’. For your consideration – on the top we have Sam Leach’s winning entry, Proposal for landscaped cosmos. Below that, Adam Pynacker’s 1668 painting, Boatmen moored on a lake shore.

Anyone who knows anything about Leach’s theory and method would not be at all surprised by the nature of his Wynne entry. A cursory glance at his website makes it very clear that he is appropriating (for that, read ‘borrowing’) imagery directly from the great Dutch painters of the 17th century to pass comment on the nature of affluence and, to a lesser degree, the close relationship between the workings of the art market today, and the boom in the art trade that took place in the Netherlands during the 1600s, coinciding with the speculative lunacy of tulipmania where single tulip bulbs were selling for the price of a house. Sound familiar? Leach isn’t the first person to draw parallels between our very own recently deflated stock market bubble and the irrational exuberance of the 17th century Dutch economy. Which also ended with a crash, by the way.

But there are a couple of questions that I’d like to throw into the ring. One is the question of copyright – clearly not an issue in this instance as Pynacker is long-deceased and so not in a very viable position to prosecute Mr. Leach. But, on a broader level, it is an issue worthy of consideration. Reproduction of a work of art or literature is permitted under law if it can be shown to be subject to ‘fair use’ – so, for example, for the purpose of research, criticism and reporting news. Seems pretty straight forward. But, what if an artist takes an image made by another artist, alters it (however imperceptibly), presents it as his or her own, and accrues financial gain from said activity? Although market commentator, Michael Reid, has said in an article in The Age today that “artistic licence lets you cross any copyright boundaries. It’s open slather”, the same is certainly not true for other art forms. The case in the music industry is very clear, as witnessed by the enormous payments made to musicians when another artist ‘samples’ their work in their own – most notable recent-ish example (showing my age, now) was when The Verve was forced to pay The Rolling Stones all of the royalties from ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ for using the hook from ‘The Last Time’. And things for visual artists may also be-a-changin’. In the US of A, artist Shepard Fairey, who made the now iconic Obama ‘Hope’ election poster, is embroiled in a far from straight-forward legal case with Associated Press, which claims he infringed copyright by using an AP photograph as the basis for his artwork. Borrowing an observation from a colleague, why are the visual arts treated as different when it comes to issues of copyright? I’m not saying it’s wrong, necessarily – just suggesting that it’s a question worth asking.

Final thought –  Pynacker spent three years studying in Italy before returning to the Netherlands and settling in Amsterdam. He became one of the most renowned Northern painters of Italianate allegorical scenes inspired by the Italian Baroque. He painted landscapes such as this one, showing a romanticised genre scene infused with warm Mediterranean light, and framed by verdant foliage, informed by plenty of plein air excursions in the footsteps of Claude. But the setting itself is, most likely, allegorical and imaginary. So – can a scene conjured up in the imagination of a 17th century Dutch painter qualify as “the best landscape painting of Australian scenery in oils or watercolours … completed during the 12 months preceding the [closing] date …” which, according to the Prize website, is what is required of the winner? Perhaps the rule itself is rather archaic and silly. But, it’s a rule nonetheless and one that, presumably, the other entrants stuck to. Again, it’s a question worth asking.

(Images: top – Sam Leach, ‘Proposal for landscaped cosmos’, via: http://www.thearchibaldprize.com.au; bottom – Adam Pynacker, ‘Boatmen moored on a lake shore’, via: http://commons.wikimedia.org)