Reviewed by Clare W Brook
Discovering Dobell by Dr Christopher Heathcote is a book of superior quality both in its written content and colourful visual representations. (It would be tedious to point out the only spelling error (8)). Heathcote’s ordering of the work facilitates easy navigation through Dobell’s career – his earlier life, artistic development in London, returning to Sydney and the portraits of Sydney-siders, the more experimental Melanesian phase, and the less published stylized abstract work with ballpoint pen. The generous proportions of this book (30 cm x 27cm) allow Dobell’s luminescent paintings to be reproduced to great effect. Initially Dobell classed his art as being between two camps, the Academy of Art and the avant-garde Society of Artists, although he became an unwitting defender of Modernism during the infamous court case held to defend his Archibald Prize portrait of Joshua Smith. Later in his career he embraced abstraction.
Dobell grew up in Newcastle, N.S.W., the youngest of seven children of working class parents. Determined to use his artistic gifts and avoid work as a labourer, he managed to enroll in a technical college at fourteen, later being apprenticed to an architect. He took up part-time study at Julian Ashton’s art school, being mentored by a known painter, G.W. Lambert.
Dobell’s life and career really started in earnest when he won a travelling prize and headed for London in 1929 at the age of thirty, staying there for nine years. Heathcote writes an interesting narrative about this time in Dobell’s life, and we see him as participating in a vibrant international scene. During the London years Dobell produced intimate scenes of working class life such as The Dirt Cart (1936). Heathcote includes an ink and pencil preliminary sketch for this work and many others in the collection, including Cockney Kid with Hoop (1936). Showing the progression of the work via preliminary sketches gives a close sense of the development of the final work. Cockney Mother (1937) is an empathetic portrait of a worn mother holding an infant. The subjects here are raw and real. Mrs. South Kensington (1937), on the other hand, carries nuanced pride. One gets the impression that the London years were perhaps the happiest of Dobell’s life, but when his father became ill and World War II was imminent, he felt it was time to return to Sydney.
The Sydney-siders was the next phase of Dobell’s work and again his subjects encompass a wide range of society, from working class studies such as Pearl (1940) and Billy Boy (1943) to the famous Helena Rubenstein (1957). However, winning the Archibald Prize for his portrait of fellow artist Joshua Smith in 1943 proved to be a turning point for the worse for both artists.
Joshua Smith was an unusually angular man. Working from a series of pencil sketches followed by a number of small studies in gouache or oil Dobell would capture his sitter’s mood and most distinctive traits. This had the effect of changing perceptual orientation of the subject, presenting another narrative. It was the ‘distinctive traits’ of Joshua Smith that landed Dobell in the middle of an unwanted controversy. The result won the Archibald but for some it was an outrageous caricature. A widely publicized court case, and much notoriety for Dobell followed. Heathcote writes sympathetically of Dobell’s suffering and ill health and becoming a recluse for a considerable time. This makes interesting reading given that what was equally in question was an issue dating from the time and work of Hogarth, namely, what can be considered a valid subject and style for artistic expression.
Dobell’s expedition to the New Guinea Highlands became a new phase in his work. The women’s body painting and use of bird plumage particularly inspired him. At this time he developed an interesting style of dense groups of interlocking figures, as depicted in The Thatchers (1953) perhaps indicating the communal nature of the subjects and their work. Heathcote fuses Dobell’s influences during the London period to explain Dobell’s work in this period.
Heathcote also includes the less publicized abstract work using ballpoint pen inspired by constructivism and the technology around the space exploration of the late 1950s. Sadly these beautiful stylized pieces are often over-looked.
Discovering Dobell by Christopher Heathcote is a companion work to the Dobell’s Circle exhibition curated by Christopher Heathcote at the TarraWarra Museum of Art.
By Christopher Heathcote