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Benalla goes nude for inaugural art prize

Troy Nankervis

Entries are now open for the inaugural Benalla Nude $50,000 prize.
Benalla goes nude for inaugural art prize

Ivan Durrant at the Benalla Art Gallery

Australian visual artists have a new incentive to explore notions of ‘the nude’ with a new $50,000 art prize.  The Benalla Nude is expected to establish a prestigious platform alongside other major Australian art prizes and to
attract art enthusiasts to the rural city of Benalla, Victoria.

The Benalla Nude Prize is a non-acquisitive cash prize funded by the Friends of the Benalla Gallery, for the best depiction of the human nude across oil, acrylic, watercolour or mixed media.

The winner will be announced in early April and exhibited alongside shortlisted works at the Benalla Nude 2014 exhibition to be held at the Benalla Art Gallery from 11 April to 27 June.

‘It’s the only time there has been a prize offered in Australia for the category of the nude, so that is significant, said key judge Daniel Thomas, AM. ‘It will be an additional drawcard for drivers down the Hume Freeway who might be tempted to pause and support the economy. The money available, which is $50,000 will certainly attract some interesting artists.’

Thomas, a widely distinguished art historian and art museum curator, has dedicated a lifetime to Australian art including appointments at the National Portrait Gallery, the National Gallery of Australia and the Art Gallery of South Australia . He feels that Benalla Nude Prize will raise the profile of one of the best regional collections in the country.

‘Not only is it the most attractive building on the Hume Highway from Melbourne to Sydney or Melbourne to Canberra, it’s the only really great collection of Australian art that you can find along the Hume. The Benalla Art Gallery for me, or anyone involved in art, is the greatest highlight of the Hume Freeway,’ he said.

‘If it becomes a regular event, which it might, it will give Benalla an image of something especially interesting..’

The Benalla Art Gallery

Thomas said one of the main reasons he came on board to judge the competition was because Ivan Durrant, one of Australia’s most important artists, has lived and worked in Benalla. ‘I acquired some of his [Durrant’s] work for the National Gallery of Australia [Canberra] some years ago when I was Head of Australian Art. There are very few regional Australian cities with a significant contemporary artist like Durrant there and so he was another attraction for me to accept the task.’

Indeed Durrant, who has participated in over 200 exhibitions and has works within multiple collections at the National Gallery of Australia,, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Art Gallery of South Australia , proposed the original idea of the Benalla Nude Prize. ‘It will be great thing because it makes people sit up and look. That’s the idea behind the name of it, it gives a bit of spark to it,’ he says.

‘The nude has sort of disappeared in art, not many people are really tackling it. It has been a subject for a long time, and to have a hand in getting something going again is a nice thing.’

Durrant hopes the competition will invigorate the city in the same way as Australia Felix, a festival he produced in the early 1990s which brought together over 120 Australian artists to the Benalla region, as the largest event of its kind to date. In a similar context he points to the success of Bendigo Art Gallery as a more contemporary example.

‘Bendigo recently had the Grace Kelly exhibition, which brought in something like $11million for the community. That’s the sort of thing we need in Benalla. If we can get that happening in Benalla that is great for the economy.’

‘It’s not just art goers, the general public like to go see art. Throughout the world now, the biggest tourist thing is art. Whether it be Paris, Rome or New York, they are going to the art galleries. People have been saying in the town for years that we need to do something like this again. It’s just good for the spirit of the town. Let’s do something that could compete with the Archibald.’

The Benalla Art Gallery is on the banks of Lake Benalla

Durrant is pleased that Thomas has come on board to judge the winner of the $50,000 prize. ‘Daniel Thomas is the ultimate in knowledge of art and art history in Australia. He knows absolutely everything, is a great thinker, a graceful man and well respected.’

‘He’s had a hand in purchasing large collections for the Art Gallery of South Australia , He’s been the forefront of their collections and has been a real leader in terms of culture. I think it’s extraordinary and so nice he is coming to do it. We could not have a better judge,’ he said.

Thomas is excited to view the entries and says they’re likely to include a mix of established and emerging visual artists who will attempt to capture the universal mystery and fascination with the nude. 

‘I can think immediately of Wendy Sharp who has indeed won the Archibald and the Portia Geach Prize. There’s Peter Churcher who does nudes quite often. He lives in Spain but he is still an Australian citizen. They are two significant painters and the money might attract them because it’s substantial. The third person might be Ben Quilty, who has been very recently in the news for asking Australian soldiers in Afghanistan to pose naked in rather moving portraits where they look melancholic and vulnerable,’ he said.

Thomas referred to Kenneth Clark's 1956 work The Nude: a study in ideal form in explaining the thinking behind the competition. ‘Clark made a very important distinction between the naked and the nude. The “naked” will be realistic, the “nude” will be more idealised. There is less eroticisim in the nude than in “the naked”.’

Durrant said he was excited by the surprise factor in the competition . ‘I’ve got no idea who is going to enter, whether it will be a slow builder over many years, or if the first one will be a knockout. I’m looking forward to the idea that the nude can now become a great thing again in art.’

The Benalla Nude Prize is open to entries on 13 January 2014 and will be presented to the work judged as the best work of the naked human figure in oil, acrylic, watercolour or mixed media.

The work must be by an artist who is an Australian citizen or who has been an Australian resident in the twelve months preceding the closing date for entries.

Submissions close 21 February, with the winner announced 10 April. The Benalla Nude 2014 exhibition will run at the Benalla Art Gallery from 11 April to 27 June and a collection of selected works will be shown from 30 June to 4 July.

For more information including submission forms visit the Benalla Art Gallery website.

About the author

Troy Nankervis is an ArtsHub journalist from Melbourne. Follow him on twitter @troynankervis