In 1943 an argument in the art world between two gay artists spilled over to become a mainstream battle in the Australian press. When William Dobell’s portrait of his lover, fellow artist Joshua Smith, won the prestigious Archibald Prize, it caused an uproar about what the boundaries of portraiture were and the encroaching influence of Modernism in the post-war order.
Kim E. Anderson’s fictionalized retelling of Dobell’s controversy, The Prize, is a tale of two halves. At first we settle in with Bill and Joshua’s lives in Sydney. Bill lives in the Eastern Suburbs, while Joshua still lives with his parents. Bill’s life as a poor artist has a ramshackle bohemian air, while Joshua is still carefully playing straight in front of his family. Other artists of the era appear in their circle of friends and acquaintances, all debating what pieces to enter into the Archibald Prize. Bill considers submitting an older piece, but at the last minute he convinces Joshua to sit for him, aiming to reveal the man’s stubbornness through the portrait.
To everyone’s surprise, Bill’s entry wins, while Joshua’s comes second. This provokes a fellow artist, Mary Edwards, who bitterly complains that Bill’s style is one of caricature, not portraiture. She begins a campaign to see Bill’s painting stripped of its prize and the Archibald committee stood down for breaching the rules. Joshua is caught in the middle, between both his parents and Mary, who want the painting removed from consideration, which would result in his own entry being declared the winner, and his love for Bill.
Anderson’s prose is clear and inviting, making The Prize an easy read. It captures Sydney’s balmy atmosphere and the 1940s city is rendered in some familiar, as well as distinctly different tones. While the first half of the novel sets things up for a major dramatic fall, the narrative never quite takes off. Tied a little too closely to the record of events, the characters are left somewhat static through the extended court case that dominates the latter half of the book.
While both Bill and Joshua are well fleshed out and make for engaging protagonists, the supporting characters lack definition and, ironically, veer into caricature themselves at times. Mary Edwards is a rather shrill, two-dimensional villain with little apparent motivation for her outrage.
Much of the prose tells us how Bill’s painting of Joshua distorts him into a vision of ill health, but the description never quite lands and the reaction of Joshua’s parents seems overly dramatic. Anderson never fully immerses the reader into the historical setting of Sydney’s post-war art world. Despite being based on real events, the characters’ motivations lack plausibility at times and the media outrage reads as overblown. Bill and Joshua’s sexuality mostly flies under the radar, while some casual homophobia and stern glances seem to undersell the reality of their lives.
All of which makes The Prize, while being a perfectly easy and entertaining read, a slight one. Though for those with an interest in art, it certainly makes for a good holiday read or weekend distraction, but as a queer narrative or a legal drama, it’s left lacking.
By Chad Armstrong
The Prize by Kim E Anderson is released on April 4, 2023 by Pantera Press. Thanks to Netgalley for an advance review copy.
Leave a Reply