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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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’

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