OPINION: Louise Hearman’s affectionate portrait of Barry Humphries, simply titled “Barry”, is the first major Australian painting to win the Archibald in many years. Even though the subject looks as though he is about to burst into a chuckle, this is a very serious painting indeed.
Hearman has previously painted a number of portrait heads (she was awarded the 2014 Moran Prize for her portrait of Bill Henson) – in each case there is a sense that she is determined to honour her subject by showing both their personality and her skill.
It was a surprise that Barry was excluded from the gallery’s central court, which is usually devoted to the unofficial short-list of paintings.
But the trustees are full of surprises this year, and the intimacy and relatively small scale of Hearman’s painting means that it hangs better in the company of other small academic works.
Barry is a contrast to the many previous portraits of Humphries, which usually make him seem comic or pompous, or both.
This is a painting of great affection for the subject – he twinkles (or is that the glitter on his eye?) as he leans forward out of the black ground, dressed in a formal white shirt and tie – a reminder that like many great satirists Humphries is essentially conservative.
But of course white-on-white tonality gives great opportunity for the artist to show her mastery of paint.
In her acceptance speech, Hearman urged people to look at original works and not just photographs. In reproduction, Barry looks like a very good but standard painterly piece of academic portraiture.
In the flesh (so to speak) the surface of the work is mirror-smooth, the shadows and textures of the paint are revealed to have been made in the finest of glazes.
The last time I saw a painting of this quality in the Archibald Prize was James Gleeson’s Portrait of the Artist as an Evolving Landscape in 1994. It didn’t win but is now in the Australian National Portrait Gallery. I hope Barry has the same final destination.
Joanna Mendelssohn is Associate Professor, Art & Design: UNSW.
This opinion piece was first published in The Conversation.