PORTRAIT PAINTER’S PARADISE
Painter in Paradise: William Dobell in New Guinea SH Ervin Gallery, Sydney, until July 12.
William Dobell (1899-1970) was the most famous Australian portrait painter of the 20th century, and the one who did more than anyone else — quite unintentionally — to give the Archibald Prize its reputation for controversy when his portrait of Joshua Smith, a fellow portrait painter, was awarded the Archibald in 1943.
Two of the unsuccessful finalists, Joseph Wolinski and Mary Edwards, appealed against the award on the grounds it was a caricature, not a true portrait. The case was tested in court with a remarkable cast of legal counsel and expert witnesses, and in the end the award was upheld. The experience, however, was devastating both to the artist, who was constitutionally retiring, and to the unhappy sitter, who had to listen to endless arguments over whether the picture exaggerated his features or whether he really was exceptionally odd in appearance.
Dobell’s portraits were not caricatures, but they were not literal renditions of what he saw either. Much less were they essentially copies of photographs, like so many of the entries we will undoubtedly see in this year’s Archibald. His method, as it was explained in an excellent study by James Gleeson (1964), is both interesting in itself and a useful introduction to the exhibition of the pictures made in and inspired by New Guinea that will be discussed below. He would have several sittings with the subject, making sketches and studies in different media — pencil, ink, gouache — and from different angles. As he said, he wanted a sculptor’s threedimensional understanding of the head. The painting itself would be completed in the studio.
There is nothing particularly unconventional about this approach so far. Painters from the Renaissance onwards would often, if not usually, do studies from life then paint most of the picture in the studio, even if there were a final sitting or two near the end of the process.
What is interesting is that Dobell preferred not to paint the final work directly from the model, and even more unusual is the fact that he did not work straight from the drawings and studies. He would put them aside as references to consult if needed, but the painting of the portrait was done from the imagination. Free of the distracting presence of another human being, the artist would concentrate on his intuitive sense of the sitter’s character and try to make that visible.
The familiarity he had developed with the sitter’s features allowed them to become malleable and to lend themselves to a certain degree of reshaping in this quest for an inner, psychic reality which tends to elude a literal imprint of the features that is taken in photography. That is why the art of the photographic portrait is so much about capturing the telling moment.
It is this resort to the imagination that could lead his critics to accuse him of caricature. But while his procedure may have its weaknesses, caricature is something different, for it is based on a deliberate distortion of external and superficial features. Dobell, however, whose work is more akin to that of the 16th-century mannerists and the early 20th-century expressionists, is
June 20-21, 2015 only allowing features to become slightly more elastic than they are in reality in order to reveal a sense of the inner character.
One of the things that he is clearly most sensitive to is the physical bearing and presence of the sitter. The portrait is not merely an account of the facial features, or even the personality that can be suggested through them, but at a more primal, instinctive level, the whole way that the body and head are held. Consider the bearing of Joshua Smith, or other famous subjects such as Mary Gilmore (1957), John Anderson (1962) or Margaret Olley, with whose picture he won the Archibald for a second time in 1948.
The portrait, as these pictures reveal, is a complex proposition. The aim is to convey an understanding of a particular human being — their personality and character as well as their physical appearance — and perhaps also to suggest some sense of the universal and typical beyond the bounds of the individual.
In order to allow the complexity of the inner life to reveal itself, the sitter has to be at rest; you cannot do a portrait of someone overcome by a strong emotion — such as fear, excitement, pain or a fight-or-flight state of arousal — because then their features are animated by passions that are common to everyone. The particular inner life will not reveal itself even in someone grinning: what the artist needs to find is the habitual, permanent shape that the face has acquired as the residue of all the fleeting expressions of many years.
As we have suggested, the bearing of the body is also crucial, especially in conveying the deepest, visceral nature of the individual, but as the sitter must be at rest, and will often be sitting in a chair, the range of physical expression is very limited. In this light we can appreciate Dobell’s achievement in endowing each of the subjects just mentioned, even in a seated posture, with a distinctive and highly expressive physical bearing.
All of these considerations are relevant to the work that Dobell did in New Guinea (then an Australian protectorate) and after his return. In 1949 he and several other important visitors were invited to inspect an experimental sheep station in the highlands; he was fascinated by the land and its people, returning for a second visit in 1950. This time he stayed for three months, making sketches, painting studies and taking photographs. Then he returned to Australia and, oddly enough, never returned.
For the last 20 years of his life he continued to paint New Guinea subjects from memory, imagination and his notebooks: the analogy with his portrait-painting process is not hard to see. Indeed, as we look around the fascinating exhibition at SH Ervin Gallery, it is striking that all the best-known and most impressive images of New Guinea were the product of a long digestion in the artistic imagination, and never simply transcribed from nature.
This is true even of the portraits, such as Boy in a Lap-lap (1952) — the houseboy attached to Mount William, Wahgi Valley
The Thatchers, Native Builders his residence in Port Moresby — or the Portrait of Matthias (1953), who wears his name tattooed on his chest and a Christian cross on his arm. These and other sitters must have interested Dobell because of a certain enigmatic quality, even a kind of muteness that they still impress on us.
The reason for this unfamiliar quality is that people in tribal cultures, as has often been pointed out, think in the first person plural rather than singular: we, not I. They do not have the kind of individual, self-conscious, neurotic inner life that goes with a fundamental assumption of separateness, and which all of Dobell’s previous sitters possessed to a greater or lesser degree.
Of course these people have profound differences of character, which are expressed, as in the other portraits, through facial expression and especially physical bearing: the slender uprightness of the first portrait, the soft, almost lounging quality of the second. And Dobell appears to have been particularly inspired by the quality of physicality and movement that he encountered in New Guinea. Even in some of the sketches made on the spot, we see figures in motion, walking, hurrying, or in characteristic postures associated with daily activities.
In the works he made after his return, it seems that the memory of movement and of corporeal energy became more and more compelling, and it is impossible not to understand this in contrast with the awkwardness and lack of movement in Australian bodies of that time: one thinks of John Brack’s stiff, angular figures, so expressive of angst and affective repression.
Australian bodies, dressed up in suits and hats, stand up straight or sit on chairs. The natives in Dobell’s pictures squat on the ground — as in The Bird Watchers (1953) — with alert, muscular legs, full of potential energy, like springs ready to uncoil. The same could be said of the figures in Giluwe (1953) and even more impressively in the smaller Study for Giluwe (1953).
There are a couple of tiny but quite remarkable works — identified by Gleeson as the most mysterious and inspired of this body of work — that are almost unique in Australian art. One is The Thatchers (c. 1952), in which the artist has turned the sequence of figures working in the thatch roof into a sort of vision by reducing the rest of the structure of the hut to a few light verticals suggesting posts.
As Gleeson pointed out, the row of tiny animated figures high in the composition inevitably recalls the angels in Botticelli’s late Mystical Nativity (1500-01), except that in this picture the grace for which the artist had been so famous has turned into a stiff, tormented awkwardness, while Dobell’s figures are all full of energy and movement, as though each one
(1951), also known as (1968-69), below