Once again there’s been controversy over the judges’ decision in the awarding of the winning portrait in this year’s Archibald Prize. Mitch Cairns’ painting of his partner Agatha Gothe-Snape drew considerable flack from a number of fellow artists including John Olsen who described the work in the Trump like dismissal “very bad”.
Well it wouldn’t be the Archibald if there wasn’t a bit of artistic argy bargy with the tradition going right back to 1943 when William Dobell’s winning portrait of fellow artist Joshua Smith was the object of a massive brouhaha. Branded a caricature and not a genuine portrait, it was described by another Archibald entrant, Mary Edwards as “a Pearl Harbour attack on art”.
These days the same portrait is regarded as an Australian classic and would hardly raise a critical eyebrow if it was entered today. Tastes certainly change over the years and what applies to so called “good taste” equally applies to that deemed “bad.” Back in the 50s and 60s in Australia it was popular for many families to hang prints of well known works in their lounge rooms. Paintings such as The Stag At Bay and Hunting Dogs At Dawn evoked our Anglo heritage and lovingly graced the mantelpiece of many a suburban bungalow.
Those with a more ‘enlightened’ appreciation of art chose prints by artists such as Drysdale, Modigliani and Miro to compliment their chic modernist furniture. A real snobbery existed and those with the so called quality prints looked down at anybody hanging a Green Lady painting with utter disdain.
Even more contemptible on the part of the arty set, was the phenomenon of “painting by numbers” whereby families would recreate works by Da Vinci and other old masters simply by daubing in the numbers. You could whip up your own Mona Lisa in an afternoon with everybody from the kiddies to grandma have a daub.
When it came to ‘people’s’ art of the twentieth I personally don’t think you can go past the genius of the anthropomorphic, Cassius Marcellus Coolidge. The American artist who lived from 1844 to 1934 gave us that brilliant series of dogs playing poker, which has since spawned a rash of imitators including dogs playing pool. These days his paintings have been mass produced in their thousands, popular in dive bars, man caves and the bedrooms of teenage boys. Call them trash if you like, but in 2015 Coolidge’s 1984 Poker Game realised a cool $658,000 (US) at a Sotherby’s auction in New York.
Perhaps Coolidge’s world of the anthropomorphic could be embraced by artists in next year’s Archibald with a number of the usual rash of celebrity sitters portrayed as bulldogs or any number of canine breeds. And why not a retrospective exhibition of Coolidge’s entire output, something to rival Melbourne’s incredible Van Gough exhibition. Surely punters from all across the country would flock to such an event at the Art Gallery of NSW with a giant man (and woman) cave created to host the collection.
Meanwhile I have just purchased my own painting by numbers kit of dogs playing poker and I am looking forward to many a creative afternoon.