Sea self portrait Archibald popular choice

·3-min read

An evocative self-portrait by Melbourne artist Julia Ciccarone has been named winner of the Archibald Prize People's Choice award.

Titled The Sea Within, the large oil-on-canvas work depicts Ciccarone lying on the floor of her studio, paintbrushes in hand, before a wall of cresting waves that threatens to engulf all in its path.

The artist is wrapped in an orange check blanket, which she has had since childhood, and rests her head on an oxblood suitcase that her father brought from Italy to Australia when immigrating in the 1950s.

Votes were cast by more than 7800 in-person and virtual visitors to the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes exhibition, and Ciccarone beat 51 other finalists to take out the $5000 prize.

The painting was informed by a photograph of a wave that the artist's daughter took during a family holiday to Queensland in 2019.

"We were on a boat when, all of a sudden, this massive, mountainous wave came straight for us and the sky went dark," Ciccarone recalls.

"I thought, this is fantastic, but I didn't have my camera with me, so I said to my daughter, 'Quick, take a picture!' I knew that wave was going to be in a painting one day."

Then, in early 2020, while ocean swimming at Apollo Bay in southwestern Victoria, where Ciccarone has a holiday house, the image for the painting came to her.

"The ocean is a symbol of the subconscious mind, and I do a lot of swimming," she said.

"For me, it's also a place of healing.

"As soon as I dive underwater, it's like my brain has been rebooted and all these images come flooding to me. There's a film in my head and I need to get it out."

Ciccarone painted The Sea Within as COVID-19 began to take hold and while devastating summer bushfires continued to burn.

"The painting nearly gave me a nervous breakdown," she laughed.

"It took six weeks - all those layers of glazing and paint. It's a big one."

In order to have a visual reference to paint from, Ciccarone got under a cold shower, then wrapped herself in the blanket and instructed her daughter to take a photo.

"She thought I was nuts, but I needed to look wet and cold."

The two-time Archibald Prize finalist first showed The Sea Within as part of a commercial exhibition, only deciding to enter the self-portrait in the Archibald Prize at a later date.

"It's quite an intense, even overwhelming, painting when you see it in the flesh," she said.

"People would come up to me and say, 'I don't know why, but your painting made me cry'.'"

Art Gallery of NSW director Michael Brand said Ciccarone was an accomplished painter whose highly detailed work immediately struck a chord with 'the Archie' audiences.

"Her depiction of vulnerability in a time of uncertainty continues to resonate as we once again navigate life in lockdown and seek both solace and shared connections through art," Brand said.

The Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes exhibition was scheduled to run until September 26, however the gallery has been closed since June 26 in line with public health orders.

The paintings can still be viewed virtually on the gallery's website, which includes a 360-degree immersive view of the exhibition.

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