Bill: The Life of William Dobell

Scott Bevan
Simon and Schuster, November 2014, RRP $35.00

This is a great biography on so many levels.  It is obviously written based years of detailed research, skill and passion by the author Scott Bevan. It has all the rigor and depth of a PhD thesis but none of the dryness. Bevan’s passion for his subject shines through. He goes always for balance and presenting both sides of the picture so readers feels an immediate trust in him.   Often he goes those extra little steps such as going to Bill’s Kings Cross flat to see what he would have actually seen out of his window.  He chooses an immensely wide range of people involved in Dobell’s life.

This is a book for lovers of Australian art.  This is also a book for anyone who has even a vague notion of Australian art in general and even minimal exposure to the institutions such as the Archibald prize. This book helps the reader explore the roles and the place of a series of Australian artists and, in particular, the birth and the place of modernism and the tensions created.  It does this in a personal, human and real way not at an art critic level.

This is a book for lovers of history. The reader get exposure to life in the depression, life in world war two, life in a small town as well as insights into ordinary people, painters  and politicians of the times. What did Helena Rubenstein and Robert Menzies really think of their portraits? Mention of the role of the Australian Women’s Weekly in art promotion and a connection with Wunderlich ceilings also bring the reader back to the everyday level of the times.

This is a book for lovers of human beings in all their complexities, contrasts and talents. William Dobell is a painter broken by the criticism and the court case which challenges the validity of his 1943 Archibald portrait prize of Joshua Smith. The book shows his return to health and art in the context of people and place at Wangi Wangi on Lake Macquarie. He is the knighted artist who has had 4 portraits on the cover of Time magazine. He is also the gentle neighbour, friend, bad driver, dog owner and good bloke who has a drink with mates at the Wangi pub every afternoon!

This is not just a story about art and modernism. It’s an Australian story.

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