It's a new world in the dash for the $50,000 Kilgour Prize

FRESH APPROACH: The Kilgour Prize exhibition at Newcastle Art Gallery.
FRESH APPROACH: The Kilgour Prize exhibition at Newcastle Art Gallery.

Newcastle Art Gallery’s valuable Kilgour Prize for paintings of the human figure is now 12 years old. While Noel Kilgour’s bequest provides a prize of $50,000 every year, in its early years it was only awarded every second year, so there have been eight winners so far.

This exhibition of 30 works continues the same now-customary division of half portraits and half freer interpretations of the figure. Entries have come from all over the country and include five artists from this area. The winning work is also the smallest, with Natasha Walsh depicting herself succinctly on a tiny square of marble. An overt portrait has only won once before, though several of the winners have been variations on the portrait.

The initial winner was Nicholas Harding’s heroic figures on the beach. The following two were teasing allegories by Dallas Bray, then came Peter Gardiner’s inhabited landscape.

It is interesting that the dozen or so portraits in the present exhibition are mostly small by Archibald standards, with sitters represented life-sized or smaller. Most are of family members rather than formal sitters. From these careful and affectionate works, the study in bereavement by Anthony Williams stands out for its almost unbearable pathos. Other portraits and self-portraits, too, have strong underlying narratives. Glen Preece surrounds his own disheartened image with bevies of vibrant women. Filippa Buttitta’s Pre-Raphaelite figure is centred in a bewildering myth-laden landscape.

Kilgour winner: Natasha Walsh of Sydney with her winning portrait, titled "Within The Studio (Self-Portrait)". Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

Kilgour winner: Natasha Walsh of Sydney with her winning portrait, titled "Within The Studio (Self-Portrait)". Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

Other paintings deal with less personal subjects. Susan Sutton shows a densely populated beach. Geoffrey Breen paints the public chessboard in a park. Anthony Slater’s large handsome painting has three enigmatic figures gazing out to sea. James Drinkwater’s imposing work almost drowns a pair of legs in a welter of vibrant paint.  Rodney Pople’s tumultuous sky dwarfs the horseman on the beach.

I find it curious that so few Kilgour artists place the figure in the landscape, a device lending scale and atmospherics for generations of painters over several hundred years. A selection of paintings from the Newcastle collection in the gallery’s front space indicates the inhabited landscape or cityscape has inspired many past painters. It also demonstrates that a great many of this country’s major artists have automatically used the figure in the great European tradition.

It would seem that current tastes and expectations might have changed. Has the fashion for abstraction played a role? The portrait holds its own, aided by the allure of the Archibald and Moran, with several of the Kilgour artists having had work selected for one of these major exhibitions. However, the breadth of possibility for painters in deploying the figure is rarely fully explored. Or it is possible the selectors do not favour such paintings? We have to hope that in future the Kilgour’s $50,000 will tempt more mainstream figures to enter this potentially nationally significant prize. Meanwhile we have some fascinating, mostly small works on the walls, which otherwise might have slipped through the cracks.