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painting of older man
Peter Wegner’s Guy Warren in his 100th Year, winner of the 2021 Archibald Prize. AGNSW/Peter Wegner/Photo Jenni Carter

Peter Wegner’s portrait of Guy Warren at 100 wins the 100th Archibald Prize

The artist Guy Warren gave the best summary of this year’s centenary Archibald Prize, telling the crowd assembled for the official announcement: “It’s a lot of fun”.

Appropriately, as well as praising Peter Wegner, whose portrait of the centenarian won this year’s Archibald Prize, Warren congratulated the many artists whose works hang alongside his likeness.

Warren is an Archibald realist. He knows the almost random nature of the first cull where the Trustees decide which works have a chance to be considered for hanging, while the great majority go directly to the stacks of rejects.

older man with portrait of him
The sitter and his portrait. AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi

In 1985 both Warren and his good friend, the artist Bert Flugelman, entered portraits of each other. Portraiture was a departure in style for both men. Although he had worked for some years as a graphic artist, Warren was best known for both experimental work and fluid semi-abstract landscapes. Flugelman had an established reputation as a sculptor.

Flugelman’s portrait of Warren was not hung. Guy Warren’s portrait, Flugelman with Wingman won the prize. With this year’s prize, Warren therefore has the rare distinction of both winning the prize and being the subject of a winning painting.

Read more: 'I think Archie would be pleased': 100 years of our most famous portrait prize and my almost 50 years watching it evolve

More works by women, but a male winner

Our public institutions are keenly aware of gender equity in 2021. Art Gallery of NSW director Michael Brand was at pains to tell the assembled throng of journalists, photographers, film crew, artists and actors (including Rachel Griffiths in prime position to film both the crowd and the podium for her forthcoming documentary) that more works by women than men had been hung this year.

Jude Rae and Pat Hoffie were highly commended by judges. But the tradition of giving the big prize to a portrait of a man, by a man, prevailed.

And it’s not a bad painting. The artist-subject is shown sitting on a chair, with his arms awkwardly placed, staring into the distance. He looks somewhat frail. Because of the echoes of history, it will be both a popular choice and a reminder that, at its core, the Archibald is a prize for social history, not art.

Read more: From Grace Tame to Craig Foster: distinguished public figures but only one politician in a telling 2021 Archibald shortlist

Artistic peers and stars

The other prizes announced at the same time reflect both old traditions and the new.

It was not a surprise that Georgia Spain, whose Getting down or falling up was awarded the Sulman Prize. Guest judge Elisabeth Cummings, was one of her favourite artists, the winner told the crowd. Indeed, there are strong echoes of Cummings’ painterly approach in Spain’s work.

abstract painting
Georgia Spain’s Getting Down or Falling Up won the Sulman Prize. Photo: AGNSW, Mim Stirling

The Sulman, unlike the other prizes, is judged by a different artist each year. Those considering entering the prize should always look at the judge’s art before entering their own.

In recent years the Wynne Prize has been dominated by work by Aboriginal artists from either central or northern Australia, and this year is no exception. Yolŋu artist Nyapanyapa Yunupiŋu’s Garak Night Sky, is muted in tone, but stunningly beautiful.

It is a retelling of one of the great narratives of Aboriginal Australia — the Seven Sisters, the constellation also referred to in non-Indigenous cultures as Pleiades.

abstract painting
Nyapanyapa Yunupingu’s Garak Night Sky won the 2021 Wynne Prize. Photo: AGNSW, Mim Stirling

The story of the Seven Sisters is repeated in Tjungkara Ken’s painting, which was awarded the Roberts Family Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Prize this year. Just as European artists can paint infinite variations on the theme of the Nativity, so the Seven Sisters remain an ever fertile subject for Indigenous artists.

The colour of water

Noel McKenna’s sweet little South Coast headland (2), Ottoman rose was awarded the Trustees Watercolour Prize, a subset of the Wynne Prize.

Leah Bullen’s Arid garden, Wollongong was awarded the Pring Prize for a watercolour by a woman. In times past so few women entered (or were hung) in the Wynne that this prize was sometimes not awarded. This year the competition was stronger.

painting of plants
Leah Bullen’s watercolour work: Arid garden, Wollongong. AGNSW

Read more: Why weren't there any great women artists? In gratitude to Linda Nochlin

Now that the judges have spoken, it is time for the people to have their say. For the last 33 years the gallery has awarded the ANZ People’s Choice award, with votes cast by visitors to the exhibition. Occasionally, but rarely, the people agree with the judges.

All finalists in the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes 2021 will be exhibited at the Art Gallery of NSW from 5 June to 26 September 2021, then tour regionally.

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