by Chris Wallace
Sydney art dealer Ray Hughes was once asked what makes a really good painter. I was the mug who asked him. It was a spring night in the courtyard of the Media Entertainment Arts Alliance (MEAA) office – affectionately known as the Painters & Dancers Union – in Redfern.
The MEAA represents journalists too, and it was a birthday party for the now late Richard “Dick” Hall, a stalwart of the MEAA and its forerunner, the Australian Journalists Association (AJA). Dick was a journo, author, political advisor to Labor luminaries from Gough Whitlam to Wayne Swan, and an inveterate bon vivant.
Dick Hall knew all of Sydney so, of course, Ray Hughes was there, already a legend and that night two, possibly three, sheets to the wind. Ray started winding himself up to answer my question. The opening moments were reminiscent of Clifton Pugh’s iconic portrait of Gough Whitlam, Gough’s hands sticking out ready to karate chop the air. But whereas The Great Leader (Gough) appeared poised for a bit of a “chop, chop”, The Great Dealer (Ray) had a full-bodied guillotine action. With each vehement plunge of his blunt hands, backed by his total bodyweight, Ray declaimed in a doom-cracking voice: “A great. Big. F*#king. BRAIN.”
Once experienced, never forgotten, Ray. Nor was his message. It changed the way I thought about painters – about artists generally – and came back to me as I looked at this year’s Archibald Prize exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW. Since Jules Francois Archibald decreed portraits in the competition should be “of some man or woman distinguished in Arts Letters Science or Politics”, the subjects as well as the better painters in the Archibald should have great big brains.
So who got painted?
The subjects of the portraits which made the final hang make interesting reading. They are Waleed Aly, Sam Leach, Cate Blanchett and children, Gareth Liddiard, Roy Ananda, Vanessa (the apparently surnameless partner of painter Marcus Callum), JM Coetzee, Charlie Waterstreet, Ray Hughes, Ted Robinson, Gemma Ward, David Walsh, Matt Moran, Hugo Weaving, Robert Jacks, Cassandra Golds, “Wilfred”, Tim Silver, Jessica Watson, David Astle, Ann Lewis, Richard Roxburgh, Robyn Nevin, Penny Sackett, Margaret Olley, Cathy Freeman, Jack Sages, Quentin Bryce, Richard Morecroft and Cheryl Barker, and self-portraits by Kate Benyon, Natasha Bieniek, Zhong Chen, Ken Done, Song Ling, Lewis Miller, Rodney Pople (and family), Jiawei Shen, Xenia Stefanescu, Tim Storrier and Pam Tippett.
Archibald specified distinguished men and women. Tick. Children aside, there are 25 male and 16 female subjects – about the same gender split in most contemporary Australian parliaments.
How about the “distinguished in Arts Letters Science or Politics” bit?
Artists themselves are the biggest single group of subjects. There are 11 self-portraits. When one adds the subjects who are artist friends of the painter, the group grows to 16. Throw in one partner and one husband of the painters in the final hang and you’ve got 18 out of the 41 works who are artists or partners of artists.
Let’s create an elastic “MEAA basket” of subjects built on this group of artists and their partners (elastic because painters aren’t actually covered by the union except within the broad, imaginary, affectionate sobriquet, the Painters and Dancers Union). So on top of the 18 subjects in this group, let’s add the art dealer (Hughes), curator (Lewis), art museum owner (Walsh), the five actors (Blanchett, Weaving, “Wilfred”, Roxburgh, Nevin), the three writers (Coetzee, Golds, Astle), the two columnists (Aly, Waterstreet), the model (Ward), musician (Liddiard), singer (Barker), television producer (Robinson) and television presenter (Morecroft).
That leaves a chef (Moran), a sailor (Watson), a scientist (Sackett), a sprinter (Freeman) and a governor-general (Bryce). Not a politician among ‘em!
I’m not sure Jules Francois Archibald intended 36 of the 41 subjects of the works which constitute the Archibald Prize finalists to be MEAA members and fellow travellers. Not that I mind – I’ve been an MEAA member for 34 years. But I think Archibald would’ve looked at the 2011 hang and told the artists to get out more.
Of course, the judges have to ignore who is depicted and choose the best art for the final hang. That’s only right. And the winner – Ben Quilty’s painting of artist Margaret Olley – is a triumph. I’ve been a sceptic but that painting proves Quilty is the goods. Forget the reproductions. You have to stand in front of it to see how good it is.
It made me wish Quilty had painted Dick Hall. A plain man but one of immense wit, charm, generosity and counter-intuitive success with the ladies. And with, to quote his friend Ray Hughes: “A. Great. Big. F*#king. BRAIN.”
This first appeared in the Canberra Times, 11 June, 2011