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Painter in Paradise: William Dobell in New Guinea

Dobell and highlandersBOB CLELAND

IN April 1949, William Dobell, the celebrated artist and twice an Archibald Prize winner, visited New Guinea.

He was the guest of Sir Edward (E J) Hallstrom of the Nondugl Experimental Sheep Farm and accompanied by a number of others, including the authors Colin Simpson and Frank Clune.

Carrying with him only basic drawing and painting equipment, Dobell was captivated with what he saw, later commenting to Colin Simpson: “First of all, what appealed to me was the dignity of the people – a  surprising dignity. They had character that I didn’t expect…

“I feel that anything that I have done in the past has been done by some other artist, but these subjects have not been done. I can get something entirely new….”

Dobell returned in 1950 for three months, this time with full painting and drawing kit.

An exhibition, currently at the Queensland University of Technology displays drawings and photographs from this trip.

I visited this exhibition recently and was most impressed.

During my Papua New Guinea service as a kiap, I spent a total of seven years in the highlands. Much of the country and many of the people captured by Dobell’s pen, pencil and brush were very familiar to me.

Viewing his works so many years later, I was surprised at my feelings of pleasure in the artistic sense and in my familiarity with so much of what he portrayed. It was emotional too.

William Dobell's Mount William, Wahgi Valley (1951)There are paintings and drawings in the exhibition that he did at the time and over several subsequent years.

His evolution in style is very apparent as is the influence these years had for the rest of his artistic life.

The captioning throughout is simple, showing only title, date, media used and the current home of the work. Thankfully, there is no pretentious curatorial waffle ‘interpreting’ what Dobell so eloquently provides through his pencil and brushwork.

I strongly recommend that any person with an interest in art of the Papua New Guinea highlands finds an opportunity to see this exhibition in Brisbane.

It finishes in about three week, on 1 May, and can be viewed at the QUT Art Museum, 2 George Street Brisbane, Tuesday to Friday 10am to 5pm. Saturday and Sunday 12pm to 4pm. Closed Monday.


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Joseph Aluofo

How would you serve us with big talents wasting away in the remote?

I am one coming out to record my production.

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