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Sunday, 5 July 2015

Book review: Bill: The Life of William Dobell, Scott Bevan (2014)

I was passionate about this book even though, as you can see, I only read just less than half of it, but that reading got me up to the end of the court case saga, which was arguably the biggest event in Dobell's life aside from his birth and his decision as a young man to become a painter. In fact it was because I was so passionate about the book that I stopped reading it where I did.

I have been interested in art for longer than I can credibly remember and so a book about one of the foremost figures in the history of Australian art was always going to pique my curiosity. My interest in the subject extends even to formulating my own ideas about Australian art, and even expressing them publicly. And it would therefore always be in light of such ruminations of my own that I would undertake the reading of such a book as this. It can hardly be a surprise then that I have strong ideas about this book's virtues and (what I see as) its failings.

In the second category must sit a distinct lack of detail in the book about Dobell's artistic influences while he lived during those formative pre-war years in London. If it is your ambition to situate Australian painting in a global context - and why, if you love the subject, would you not want to do this? - then you would have to say that Bevan's book has failed to contextualise Dobell's influences in a global sense. It might be a lack of source material, of course, but I sense that that's not the problem. It's just that for Bevan the issue of where Australian art sits in that global context was not a pressing one while he was writing the book. And so he didn't address it adequately.

In my mind Bevan is stronger in his recounting of the details of the court case, and this section of the book I think goes some way toward justifying my own ideas, as they have been explained in the link above, about Australian art in the 20th century. Dobell's main detractors Mary Edwards and Joseph Wolinski serve to illustrate for me the parochialism and conservatism of the Sydney art scene, even though there were other, very different, views of Dobell's portrait, the one which won the Archibald Prize. The mere fact that the controversy was so much discussed in Sydney, so much a part of everyday conversation, for such a long time, shows how far Australia still had to go in order to be considered a relevant art location in a global sense. Dobell, considered (as my mother told me recently when I went up to her nursing home one day) a modern, had with his relatively realist-inspired portrait dragged Australia kicking and screaming into the 20th century all at once. It was a painful process, as the book shows.

I was reminded of how slow the Australian art  scene was to catch up with major 20th century art movements when I saw an exhibition of Spanish art in Brisbane in 2012 which featured some European late-19th century realist paintings, which dated from the 1890s and early noughties, that resembled very closely in style the paintings from the same era of the so-called Australian Impressionists. The sad thing is that even by the time of Dobell's court case such works were still considered adequate for describing life in Australia, and this was by now the 1940s.

Bevan is a quiet chronicler who respects his sources and refrains from editorialising. I found his book to be competent from the point of view of a reader of biographies generally, but there were those shortcomings: the lack of focus on Dobell's early influences in Europe, and a shyness about commenting in an overt manner on the court case and on what it said about the contemporary Australian culture industry. It is important to be truthful, if not downright blunt, about what can only be considered to be something of a national embarrassment.

One product of the shortsighted and retrograde attitudes that leading figures in the culture industry of those days clung to, is the distinct lack of good representative works of European Modernism in Australian art galleries today. The works of Picasso, Matisse and Kokoschka were not bought simply because the curators and gallery managers during the years when such works were eminently affordable did not think they were important. Such hubris is astonishing. In short, they let down the country badly.

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