William Dobell: Painter in Paradise

July 4, 2015
WILLIAM DOBELL,
'Head of Kuta girl' (1953)
oil on hardboard, 45 x 34 cm.
Private collection
WILLIAM DOBELL, 'Head of Kuta girl' (1953) oil on hardboard, 45 x 34 cm. Private collection

Although he was one of Australia’s best-known artists, William Dobell (1899-1970) was inordinately sensitive to criticism. After the notorious court case over his Archibald Prize win of 1943, Dobell withdrew to his hideaway in Wangi where he suffered from a series of nervous complaints. He broke out in severe dermatitis and at one point lost the use of a leg. It is, therefore, a very good thing he didn’t make it to the age of 115 to hear what people are saying about his New Guinea paintings in the exhibition, Painter in Paradise, at the S.H. Ervin Gallery.

When I told another artist I’d just seen the Dobell show, he replied: “Oh my God. Don’t tell me those frightful things are any good!” In all conscience I couldn’t sing their praises, but had to admit I was fascinated by the exhibition. Some paintings fail in such an interesting way it almost counts as success, and this is the case with Dobell’s New Guinea works.

Painter in Paradise has been put together by Natalie Wilson, Curator, Australian & Pacific Art at the Art Gallery of NSW, which begs the question: “Why is this show at the S.H. Ervin, when the AGNSW has hardly had an original exhibition for the past three years?”

Dobell is an artist of undeniable significance, even if his late works are generally viewed as evidence of a talent in decline. In the catalogue Wilson emphasises that Dobell entertained the highest aspirations for his New Guinea pictures. He felt he had discovered a subject that had not been explored by any other painter, and had the opportunity to make something “entirely new”.

Dobell first travelled to New Guinea for eight weeks in 1949, as a guest of the millionaire, E.J. Hallstrom, who had started a sheep farm in the territory. It was the first time Dobell had ever flown in an aeroplane. He was accompanied by a group of creative people, including the writer, Colin Simpson; photographer, Laurence Le Guay; and the irrepressible Thelma and Frank Clune, but he soon broke away and settled down to work at Hallstrom’s property, Nondugl.

Normally reserved and shy, Dobell had an Indiana Jones moment in New Guinea, joining a party that trekked for 80 kilometres through the highlands, from Nondugl to Mount Hagen. Along the way the group had to cross a flooded stream by means of a human chain. Dobell arrived at his destination barefoot, wearing only his underpants.

He recorded the trip in the small oil, The torrent (1952), which has an apocalyptic feel. A native woman in the centre of the composition resembles the Virgin Mary, in countless Renaissance pictures. The shadowy figure waiting to greet her on the other shore has two devilish protuberances on his head. Yet Dobell was coming back from the Underworld, restoring himself to life after the extended trauma of the Archibald dispute.

The first New Guinea trip proved so inspirational he would return in 1950, spending a further three months exploring the landscape in a way that seemed entirely out-of-character. This time he boarded a boat that travelled to the upper reaches of the Sepik, stopping at remote villages along the way.

In his recently published biography of the artist, Scott Bevan sums up the significance of these excursions:

“The two New Guinea trips helped reinvigorate Bill Dobell, both as a man recovering from illness and as an artist. New Guinea provided him with a horde of potential painting subjects. He brushed new, and vibrant, colours onto his boards, and he was applying paint with vigour and confidence once more.”

When one stands in front of a painting such as Giluwe (1953), it hardly seems credible that this is by the same artist who produced so many masterful portraits. A study of four natives, painted in clashing tones of red and green, it looks like a forgotten fragment of German Expressionism. Some pictures, such as The thatchers (c. 1952), with its crowd of workers suspended in mid-air, would pass for Surrealism. There are frequent compositional references to the Renaissance and much that is overtly Mannerist. The late picture, The night of the pigs (1970) looks like something Lawrence Daws or Donald Laycock were producing at the time.

Dobell reputedly felt the New Guinea works were “more classical in style”, which tends to confirm the belief that artists are not always the best judges of their own output. This show even includes a set of purely abstract doodles made with pencil or biro.

The New Guinea pictures were immensely important to Dobell, who was preoccupied with the subject for years, yet they are evidence of a career in crisis as the artist strives to reinvent himself. Watching the growing ascendency of abstract art during the 1950s Dobell must have felt he was in danger of becoming a relic. The unfamiliar environment of New Guinea gave him the courage to experiment. One can admire his sense of adventure even if the results were not pretty.

Much of the interest in this show comes from the drawings and photographs Dobell produced. He wielded the camera with a painter’s eye for composition, and filled sketchbooks with quick studies. In the process he captured a view of an age-old civilisation that was only beginning to feel the impact of the modern world.

Dobell’s excitement was partly erotic. Although he never discussed his sexual preferences one can see he was immensely impressed with the supple, muscular forms of the tribesmen who walked around naked, or wearing only a penis gourd as a fashion accessory. For an artist as guarded as Dobell, New Guinea presented an open-air studio with models in abundance.

For all his experimentation it is the figure studies and formal portraits that emerge as the strongest pieces in the show. Boy with a bow (1953) suffers from a bilious colour scheme, but it is a carefully constructed picture. As Natalie Wilson points out, it features a young tribesman in full regalia adopting the same contrapposto pose as Michelangelo’s David.

Paintings such as Mathias (1953) and Boy in white laplap (1952) are Dobell’s closest approaches to the “classical” style he saw as a keynote. One of the best pieces is the small, broadly brushed study, Head of Kuta girl (1953), which retains much of the vitality of the drawings.

In the midst of this whirlwind of a show the portraits provide an oasis of stability. One recognises the old, familiar Bill Dobell doing what he does best, capturing a skillful likeness of a seated figure, with few extraneous details. Dobell’s portraits are painterly rather than photographic, using slight distortions to convey a sense of personality. While Mathias seems like a placid personality, the boy in a laplap is uptight and nervous. The former relaxes in full daylight, while the latter withdraws into darkness.

By the time Dobell exhibited the New Guinea works he was an Australian icon whom the press compared to Gauguin. Although there could hardly have been two more contrasting personalities in the history of art than Dobell and Gauguin, both men were energised by their contact with an ‘exotic’ non-European culture.

One dissenting voice was the artist’s old friend, Paul Haefliger, writing as Our Art Critic in the Sydney Morning Herald. Haefliger argued that Dobell had become a “miniaturist”, and sacrificed his pre-eminent position in Australian art. “The fire had departed from his work and only technique remained,” he lamented.

In typical fashion Dobell was devastated by Haefliger’s critique. He claimed the pictures were only small because the series was still in its preliminary stages. His confidence drained away, and the intoxication of the subject began to wane.

Nowadays the “miniaturist” accusation seems beside-the-point. It is not the scale of these pictures that feels so unsettling, but Dobell’s nervous style-shifting and discordant sense of colour. We see an artist who felt overwhelmed by a new field of discovery, at the same time he was struggling to reassure himself of his own relevance. The show is a portrait of a mind in turmoil and a talent in disarray. It should be seen by all artists who’ve ever felt dumped by the wave of fashion. As Dobell’s example shows, it’s better to remain calm rather than to trash around wildly in a frenzy of creativity.

Painter in Paradise: William Dobell in New Guinea
S.H. Ervin Gallery, until 12 July

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 4th July, 2015