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Thursday, January 9, 2014

Sir William Dobell

William Dobell Self-portrait, 1965-66.
Portrait of Joshua Smith, William
Dobell, 1943 Archibald Prize.
When you begin talking about Australian portrait painters, the first question to arise is usually, have they won the Archibald Prize? In the case of Sir William Dobell (knighted in 1966), the answer is, yes...not once but three times (1943, 1948, and 1959). All three paintings were outstanding in their own way, but the painting which first caught my eye did not win. I'm not sure it was even entered. It's the strikingly expressionistic self-portrait above, painted in 1965-66. The artist was around sixty-seven years of age at the time. Born in 1899, he died in 1970, just three years after the portrait was painted.

Dobell's work is often homoerotic, also satirically erotic, as in his 1936 The Duchess Disrobes (below, left). Of Dobell's three winning Archibald entries, that of 1943, a portrait of fellow artist, Joshua Smith (right), is probably the most unique. It was certainly the most controversial. The decision of the jurors of the New South Wales Art Gallery landed them in court as two other competition artists objected that the painting was not a portrait, but a caricature. The case went all the way to the Australian Supreme Court the following year (it was a slow year). The decision of the judges was upheld, the suit was dismissed. But in its aftermath, the high-strung Dobell became emotionally disturbed, retreating into seclusion and an early retirement. I wonder what he'd done if he'd lost.

Margaret Hannah Olley, William
Dobell, Archibald winner, 1948.
The Duchess Disrobes, 1936,
William Dobell--erotic satire.
In his so-called "retirement," Dobell painted only landscapes...for a while, at least. Apparently he was back at it again sometime within the next five years in painting his second Archibald winner, yet another portrait of a fellow artist, Margaret Hannah Olley (above, right). The 1948 winner was a rather prim, almost Victorian piece somewhat reminiscent of Renoir on a bad day. This winner avoided becoming a "federal case" as did his portrait of Dr. E.G. MacMahon eleven years later in 1959. The three portraits are significant when compared one to another.

Mrs. South Kennsington, 1937, William
Dobell. Not very flattering, but at least
she was allowed to keep her clothes on.
Sixteen years, from 1943 to 1959, is a long time in an artist's life. Art changes, styles change, tastes change, the artist changes. The Joshua Smith "caricature" portrait is slender nearly to the point of emaciation. The Margaret Olley portrait is quite buxom, stopping just short of Impressionism. The MacMahon portrait is more on the order of an oil sketch, quite painterly and strikingly informal as compared to the others with the bespectacled doctor wearing his surgical "greens." The portrait would seem to represent a return to the naturalism of the artist's youth. Dobell spent ten years in Europe during the 1940s. Though Europe changed his style, at the same time, it would seem to have multiplied the number of styles at his disposal, allowing the versatile portrait painter the flexibility of matching his style to his subject's persona.

Dr. E. G. MacMahon, William Dobell, 1959 Archibald Prize winner.


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