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Finding the Archibald

Rachel Griffiths bares her passion and conflict for the face that stops a nation in a new ABC series.

It’s a constant source of public discussion, whether in unison or disagreement, and now the Archibald Prize is again the subject of a fascinating television series.

Having previously been showcased in Foxtel’s 2017 series, The Archibald Prize (also by producers Mint Pictures), ABC now turns its attention to the art contest in its 100th year, in Finding the Archibald.

Actor, producer, director Rachel Griffiths is a perfect choice as our art gallery guide, noting that she is “the daughter of an art teacher, wife of a painter and an actor who has spent her whole life trying to understand the human condition.”

While the three part series is a deep dive into the art, history and politics of the Archibald, Griffiths is seeking to choose just one portrait that represents the changing face of Australia over the last century. She is joined by Natalie Wilson from the Art Gallery of NSW as she curates the Archie 100 exhibition.

Rather than merely turning the cameras to annual portraits, Griffiths underlines the imbalance of its 100 winners. Until 2020 no Indigenous painter had ever won, and only 3 winners had been a portrait of a First Australian. But there were also only 10 female painters who had won (a ratio not unlike that Logies Hall of Fame list). If the Archibald is any snapshot of our cultural history, what is it saying more widely…?

There’s also the question of the initial directive, set in the bequest from J. F. Archibald, that portraits feature “distinguished Australians” from Arts, Letters, Science or Politics. No surprise that the earliest winners post-1921 were of senior white gentlemen in positions of power. Over the years judges’ choices began to shift, both in art styles and subjects, notably a portrait by William Dobell in 1943.

With that came criticism, division, scandal and even legal stoushes over the Archibald. Yet it remains “the face that stops a nation.”

Griffiths meets several painters including Ben Quilty, Vincent Namatjira (grandson of Albert Namatjira), 4-time winner of the Packing Room Prize Vincent Fantauzzo (interviewed with partner Asher Keddie) and muse Wendy Whiteley, former wife of the acclaimed Brett Whiteley. The first episode also features art librarians and art students to contrast the history and future of portraits.

Throughout it all Griffiths affection and personal dilemmas around choices and winners is evident. Whether accessing rare paintings kept under lock and key or coming face to face with works she has only seen via reproduction, her passion and conflict is bared for the cameras.

It’s clear Griffiths is seeking to redress an imbalance in archive of who we are as a culture, as reflected through the eyes and hands of gifted painters. This may not be all the Archibald is, but they are definitely questions worth asking.

Finding the Archibald airs 8:30pm Tuesdays on ABC.

One Response

  1. “Until 2020 no Indigenous painter had ever won, and only 3 winners had been a portrait of a First Australian. ”
    And in 2021, the winning painter was a white Aussie bloke whose subject was another white Aussie bloke. Go figure!

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