WANGI's favourite son is being celebrated with his own festival in Lake Macquarie all this month. The late artist Sir William Dobell (or plain 'Bill' to the residents who knew him) made the quiet lakeside suburb his own at the end of 1950.
He retreated to the remote family weekender after a sensational legal case which gave him fame, notoriety and broke his health.
His two-storey home, including an art studio, still stands by the lake shore, but is now called 'Dobell House' and is a public shrine to his creative genius. Bill Dobell (1899-1970) is long gone, but even for a younger generation, mention of his name may evoke a faint response.
After all, his name is still commemorated in the local Dobell Drive, Dobell Place outside his house, and William Dobell Park. The federal seat of Dobell is also named after him.
Today a whole room at Wangi Workers Club is devoted to his memory with 21 copies of his artworks on the walls. Not bad for a working-class, former Newcastle boy from Cooks Hill who became a knight.
For more than anyone, the internationally acclaimed artist put Wangi Wangi firmly on the map, although staying humble and universally regarded as "a good bloke".
When the world-famous yet shy, reserved painter died suddenly at home 51 years ago last month, more than 70 paintings plus more than 100 drawings were found in the house. Many of the prized paintings were incomplete and unsigned though, according to author and Herald journalist Scott Bevan who published a Dobell biography simply called Bill in 2014.
In Wangi itself on the day of Dobell's death, the Newcastle Sun reported flags were at half-mast and the village was in mourning. At his funeral soon after Wangi was virtually shut for the day.
For any art-lovers today making a pilgrimage of sorts to his former home, perhaps under stormy skies, the inspiration for Dobell's art is all around. As author Bevan writes: "His landscapes are in the rustle of the casuarinas along the shore and the light on the water".
Rather more mundane, however, are my impressions of visiting his home a few years after his death and coming across not one of his prized portraits but his 'chain of friendship'. It's a linked chain of ring pulls from beer cans, representing scores if not hundreds of them.
Bill enjoyed a beer or two with mates and was clearly one of the locals.
But there was an earlier, lesser known side to Dobell's life and times and that involved World War II and nearby Rathmines. For despite his talent, Bill Dobell was initially not an official war artist.
His painting skills were devoted instead to a camouflage unit. Here, he painted aircraft and fake farm scenes to disguise military installations from possible spying eyes of low-flying Japanese aviators when it was feared we might soon be invaded.
The projects might well have been vital. A frustrated Dobell, however, saw much of his work as bizarre, ridiculous and pointless, but he did share tent with two other men at one stage of the war. One was fellow artist Joshua Smith whose later actions were to have a major impact on Dobell's life, despite a once growing friendship.
Memories of those bygone days came back during my recent visit to Rathmines to view an unusual exhibition at the former RAAF gym, now restored by Lake Macquarie Council as the Rathmines Heritage Centre.
Called Max Dupain: Art and War, the display illustrates the wartime work of the artist and renowned photographer. In vivid black and white photographs from the State Library of NSW, Dupain recorded day-to-day life at military bases such as RAAF Rathmines.
Dobell and Smith even worked as experimental camouflage artists to conceal aircraft and RAAF facilities under the supervision of Dupain until about May 1943.
But amid the striking images Dupain shot and now on show is what seems to be a very rare picture of artists Dobell and Joshua Smith laughing and talking together at Sydney's Bankstown Aerodrome sometime between 1942 and 1943 while on assignment there. They seem close mates.
Dupain's other black and white wartime photographs, including refuelling a PBY Catalina on Lake Macquarie, are fascinating, but it was the Joshua Smith snap which really caught my attention.
For artist Dobell painted a controversial portrait of his friend Smith which ultimately destroyed their friendship. It won the prestigious 1943 Archibald Prize exhibition and it changed his life.
William Dobell was castigated, his incisive 'modern' portrait of Smith - born from friendship - was labelled as a distortion, a caricature. The nation was shocked. Conservative critics brought out their knives.
There was talk that someone wanted to buy the painting for an exorbitant price, but there were fears the portrait might then be destroyed. The uproar was even pushing the Second World War aside in the newspapers.
The drama went to court. Dobell's legal team won, but at a tremendous cost to the artist's health.
A shell-shocked Dobell retreated to Wangi where the village protected the artist with its residents later drinking and partying with him.
Max Dupain: Art and War exhibition is open Friday to Sunday at the Rathmines Heritage Centre between 10am and 2pm until November 28
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