Update: in response

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Written in response to:

The Man Who Knew Too Much

I was very struck in Martin Edmond’s finely calibrated review of Scott Bevan’s Bill: The Life of William Dobell with his sentence summoning up Bevan’s view of an important aspect of Dobell’s personality.

His homosexuality was known in the village … but considered irrelevant. Bill was a good bloke. End of story.

I have to admit to buying Bevan’s book in an airport. I began reading it with a sense of anticipation. This soon dissolved, as I found the style of writing antipathetic. What do I mean by this? I only knew Dobell from a few of his more powerful, enigmatic images like The Duchess Disrobes, which Edmond evokes so masterfully. I looked forward to finding out more about what makes Dobell an outstanding if uneven painter. Perhaps the kindest thing to say is that Bill: The Life of William Dobell was not what I was looking for. I found the language frequently clumsy and possibly Bevan’s tangential approach was too far removed from what I wanted to find out. But even so, I was surprised at the little weight given to Dobell’s sexuality, though I acknowledge Edmond signals Bevan’s ‘odd ambivalence’ and alludes to the ‘willed reticence’ of Dobell himself.

To find oneself the centre of a national scandal about a painting prize – and to be homosexual at a time of immense stigmatisation and illegality – raises the stakes stratospherically. All it needed was a past sexual partner to come out of the woodwork and Dobell’s career would have been finished. Is it possible to read his burying himself geographically as a form of suicide? Flight? Since I did not finish reading Bevan’s book, I cannot comment on how this is interpreted, but I gather from the review there was no commentary on how Dobell lived his life sexually in the surveillance unit which is small town life. (Or did his sexual partners, possibly married men, keep quiet about this to the author, so it naturally did not enter Bevan’s narrative? Being ‘the only gay in the village’ frequently has a functional aspect that eludes public chronicles.) Or was it a case of Dobell simply suppressing that side of his personality? Did this led to an ossification of his art? I raise these questions as they seem not unimportant. It is, I am aware, only too easy to overstate this case, looking back at sexuality through an ahistorical lens. But it seems to me, a potentially rich vein of investigation of this troubled, brilliant painter was left untapped. As you can see, this was not the book for me. Having said that, I enjoyed Edmond’s finely tuned diagnosis of Dobell’s art immensely.

Peter Wells


Published May 8, 2015