Seeking to escape the public attention garnered by winning both the Archibald and Wynne Prizes for 1948, William Dobell accepted an invitation from Sir Edward Hallstrom to travel to New Guinea’s highlands. For the famously reclusive artist, it would seem an out-of-character decision to fly to a foreign land for the first time at fifty years of age. Dobell spent two months in Papua New Guinea in 1949 and returned for another three months in 1950. The country sparked a new creative direction for Dobell and he continued to paint its lush mountainous landscapes and portraits of the ‘immensely beautiful’ people right up until his death in 1970.1 Dobell’s sentiments towards New Guinea are summarised in a letter he wrote circa May 1949: ‘This place is heaven on earth. I am seriously thinking of spending several months here now and again as I am not bothered by anything or anybody in my work and I feel that I am on to something quite new.’2
Just six years earlier, during the Second World War, photographer Max Dupain was serving with the Royal Australian Air Force in Papua New Guinea. The illustrated photograph depicts the airstrip near the village of Nadzab, where on 5 September 1943 Australian troops took part in the first successful airborne operation of the Pacific War.3 The image captures the right-leaning peak and sharply cascading gullies of what appears to be the same landscape in Dobell’s painting.
1. Johnson, G.H., ‘Dobell May Settle in New Guinea’, The Sun, Melbourne, 25 October 1949, as quoted in Wilson, N., Painter in Paradise: William Dobell in New Guinea, National Trust S.H. Ervin Gallery, Sydney, 2015, p.6
2. Dobell, W., Letter to David Nettheim, circa May 1949, Nondugl, Central Highlands, New Guinea, as quoted in ibid., p.12
3. ‘The Airborne Landing at Nadzab’, The Australian Army [accessed October 2021]: www.army.gov.au/our-heritage/history/history-focus/airborne-landing-nadzab