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  • Writer's pictureAndrew McIlroy

Archibald Prize 2017: Pointing to difference of male and female portraitists sets back feminism

Writing for Fairfax this week, art commentator, academic and bon vivant Robert Nelson throws the cat among the pigeons, with the startling proposition that one only has to look at this year’s Archibald Prize finalists to see sexism in the arts at play, albeit with perversely welcome consequences - a celebration of the differences between male and female artists.

In his opinion piece, Archibald Prize 2017 Review: A difference between male and female portraitists, Nelson risks singlehandedly setting back the cause of women painters being considered as every bit equal to their male counterparts.

To be fair on Nelson, his proposition is nothing new.  Paintings by female painters have long unfairly been in many quarters regarded as less capable and less valuable - and Nelson does not go anywhere near this length.  But he does point out that they should be approached and viewed as different. I believe this is wrong.  Art should not be viewed from a gender perspective.

Nelson’s starting point is to suggest that the distinction between the soft, understated hand of the female artist, and her choice of a subdued yet strong and world-wise female subject and the male artist who inevitably uses a bold unmistakably masculine technique and in-your-face compositions is a given when it comes to portraiture.

Nelson describes it thus,

The women in this year’s Archibald are self-possessed, thoughtful, often introspective.  Meanwhile, most of the men seem either conspicuously powerful or boastfully vain: proud of their mess, theatrical or commanding, even twisting their occasional humility into bombast.

Nelson takes us through his favourites:  Prudence Flint’s portrait of Athena Bellas, Natasha Walsh’s self-portrait The Scent of Rain, Yvette Coppersmith’s Professor Gillian Triggs, and Tsering Hannaford’s “no-nonsense” self-portrait reclaiming he says “Magdalen’s agony as the artist’s struggle with sincerity”.  Really?  And the list goes on - notably leaving off those harsher works (using Nelson's lens) painted by women.

Gender is not the issue: Finalist Yvette Coppersmith with her portrait of Prof Gillian Triggs

Setting the paintings by men against this, Nelson is bizarrely it seems suggesting a conscious conspiracy against women,

The work of male painters is less than subtle and more about spaces people occupy.  There are plenty of pictures of funny people, like Phil Meatcham’s Aah Yeah, That Guy, with the actor Francis Greenslade ‘mansprawling’ on a couch; or Marcus Wills’ portrait of Thomas Wright as a filmic bruiser in Protagonist, Antagonist.

To be fair to the boys, their subject matter is often big, charismatic men, like Paul Newton’s Rupert Myer AO or Robert Hannaford’s Michael Chaney.  But even with men who don’t represent corporate authority, there’s a tendency towards rhetorical exaggeration – as with Anh Do’s thickly painted JC, where the aboriginal actor Jack Charles looms massively over the void like a bunyip in the dark, spilling his hoary glow in the billabong as a portentous reflection.

Putting aside Nelson’s usual penchant for over-the-top verbal flourishes, this commentary is patronising and unhelpfully laced with prejudice.  And if true, perhaps too the Archibald’s judges in applying their own sympathetic agendas when selecting works.

 Finalist Anh Doh's JC

Nelson chooses to put to one side artworks that do not fit his preconceived notions as “exceptions to the rule where males are ‘gentle’, ‘delicately naïve’ or possessing of a ‘winsome confessional humour’.

On the winning portrait by Mitch Cairns’ of Agatha Gothe-Snape, Nelson asks, “Can she trust the world given to her by a male painter?”

Perhaps we should ask her?  To me this is subjective nonsense.

Judging by the response to Nelson’s article on social media, a not-insignificant number of women who paint are embracing it as a celebration of difference, putting at last their work in the richly deserved spotlight – in the face of a patriarchal art world.  But is this as a critical assessment of the value of their art genuinely in their best interests?

Art critic and academic, Robert Nelson  Photo: Monash University

Nelson’s thesis appears to disregard the fact that the art world is not the same beast in terms of inclusion than it was in the past where ‘women’s work' in society is now more accepted and respected.  And hence should not now be viewed so distinctively. 

Nevertheless, only a fool would fail to acknowledge that we have a long way to go in the art world before those identified as female (artists, curators, museum directors, funding officers, academics, art critics) are treated with equal respect as those identified as male.  Simply put, works by women artists are still worth far less than similar works by men from the same generation and locale. 

Certainly these days we do not often see feminist shows or exhibitions of works addressing feminists values or gender, sexual, and other interrelated social inequities.  But to argue that women bring a perspective and technique to painting that men lack and that in this they are somehow to be preferred is baseless, counterproductive and to be frank, a rather disingenuous way to critique this collection of work. 

Still it is the Archibald.  Can gender politics ever be left out of it?

Main Photo:  'The Meal' (detail) by Prudence Flint  Photo: Jenni Carter, AGNSW and reproduced by The Age

Robert Nelson, Archibald Prize 2017 review: A difference between male and female portraitists, The Age, 20 November 2017   To read Robert's article, click here.

Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist, living and working in Melbourne Australia.

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