The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christo­pher Allen

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

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