THE PRIZE FIGHTER
John Olsen’s history with the Archibald Prize is every bit as varied and colourful as the life of the grand master of Australian painting, writes
trousers. Most of the men had beards and long hair.”
The shortest of the protesters, a dachshund dog with a placard tied to its lead declaring, “Winner Archibald Prize 1954 — William Doggie”, was the last to enter and the only one of the group not to reach the Archibald section. The attendants had been too astounded to act quickly enough to stop the rushing students, but the dog was immediately ejected.
The crowded gallery was agog, witnessing the group rushing in, listening to the shouts of protest — “We’ve got good artists here … being suffocated” — and reading the handwritten posters as they were waved high: “We’re objecting, Not rejecting.” “Art ain’t just paint!” “Archibald decisions death to Art!” “Don’t hang Dargie, hang the trustees.” “Art? Art? Art??” “Buy a camera and win the Archibald.” “Another photo finish in Archibald.” “3rd time proves it — 7th time ruins it.” “R.I.P. Art.” “No more of Dargie’s dirges.” It took some time before alarm bells were set off. The group then gave three rousing cheers for Picasso and scarpered. As the police came roaring down Art Gallery Road the protesters scattered across the Domain.
The event enlivened the Archibald enormously. One elderly gentleman took it upon himself to defend Queen and country and gave chase to the marauding hordes, waving his catalogue and shouting, “You’re a lot of commos!”
At The Sunday Telegraph, painter and art critic Jeffrey Smart, with the blessing of his publisher, Frank Packer (in the form of “anything to throw a bit of shit”), had written a double column full of outrage at the decisions of the AGNSW board of trustees over the Archibald selections. Smart, recalling that time, said: “I was very indignant about the structure of the ineffective board. It consisted of a draper, a wool buyer, a camellia expert, an architect, and not one artist. I was ropeable about that. I also believed a board member should only stand in for three or four years, otherwise they become moribund. After the article appeared I received a call from someone who introduced himself as John Olsen, asking what he could do.
“I had done quite a bit of public speaking and knew there could be nothing worse than making a speech and have someone holding up something that you couldn’t quite read. I advised him to make a banner and take it to the next public meeting that the minister of education was addressing.”
John took Smart’s advice. He prepared a long banner that read: “What about the gallery reform promises of 1945?” and stood with his friends, hiding it unfurled, at the back of the Education Department gallery. As the minister rose to his feet, they raised the banner — but be-
John Olsen: ‘In your life you’ve got to have a bit of bloody luck’