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Painter in paradise: William Dobell in New Guinea

Simbu Girl (Dobell  1953)PETER KRANZ

MORRISET - This painting is of a Simbu girl wearing kina shells and with a bilum hanging from her head. It’s dated around 1953 and it is lovely.

It was painted by Sir William Dobell (1899–1970), one of Australia's greatest artists and a Wangi lad (just up the road from Morriset), who spent time painting in Papua New Guinea’s Wahgi valley in 1949 and the early 1950s.

Dobell had been invited there by Sir Edward Hallstrom of Taronga Zoo fame, who had founded an experimental sheep station and bird of paradise sanctuary at Nondugl in the central highlands.

Hallstrom also helped preserve the famous singing dogs and once lectured editor Keith Jackson on the animals of PNG and Africa (although it wasn’t until more than 50 years later that Keith visited Africa for the first time).

The NSW Art Gallery had an exhibition of Dobells works a while back and while it was on I was fortunate enough to be able to introduce Rose and Mana Kuman to the gallery’s director.

He was interested to meet two Wahgi girls who knew the places and bilas painted by Dobell.

In an endeavour to escape publicity after he won the prestigious Archibald Prize in 1948 win, Dobell left Australia for New Guinea with his friend, writer Colin Simpson, and Hallstrom.

Bill Dobell in the highlands
Bill Dobell and friends in the highlands

It was the first time Dobell had stepped inside an aircraft and up to the highlands he flew, for the following three months drawing and painting watercolours of the landscape, village life and the highlanders themselves.

Returning to Sydney, Dobell was haunted by his experience and in April 1950, sponsored by Qantas, returned to PNG, this time extending his travels to include an extended period in Port Moresby and a boat trip on the Sepik River.

On this second expedition, Dobell not only took his sketchbooks but a camera, and recorded on black-and-white film daily life in Mount Hagen and Nondugl, as well as rare early images of the Upper Sepik region.

These photographs and sketches formed the basis of many paintings he was to produce over the following two decades.

“The natives up there in the Wahgi Valley are immensely beautiful, physically superb, and with a sense of human dignity which sophisticated civilisation seems to have forgotten,” Dobell wrote.

“Combine this with marvellous light and colour, and primitive vigour, and you have a completely satisfying artistic experience. This attitude of simple dignity is what I’ll try to get. Whether I succeed or not is another matter.”


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Raymond Sigimet

When I was in primary school in the mid 1990s, I was given a picture print of a Madonna and child by the local priest as a Religious Education award.

I have over time, seen this print in some PNG Catholic literature. Also this print has been given as a gift or award.

I've always wondered about this portrait because of its strength and striking features. The Madonna and child smiling and the child cradled lovingly.

In my young mind back then, this portrait of the "black" Madonna and child looks Papua New Guinean in all its detail. I can now recall that I wondered back then who the artist might be.

I don't know if this is a print of the lost "Nondugl Madonna and Child" painted by Sir William Dobell.

Douglas Young

Fr Garry Roche reminded me that the area outside Mount Hagen on the road to Kagamuga airport is named Dobell. Could it have been named after the great artist?

My informant tells me that it was named by a plantation manager in the 1960s so it is quite possible.

Douglas Young

He also completed a Madonna and child for the Catholic Church in Nondugl which sadly has been lost.

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