Discovering Dobell: Helena Rubenstein

Opening this coming weekend, the Discovering Dobell exhibition at Tarrawarra – and its accompanying book – features the artist’s controversial and recognisable portraits of Joshua Smith, Dame Mary Gilmore and, as we see here, Helena Rubinstein, alongside other vital strands of his output, introducing the creative achievements of this great Australian painter for a new generation of art lovers.

The cosmetics manufacturer Helena Rubinstein became an obsession for William Dobell. He fretted over her portrait for six years, producing many versions in an effort to portray what he considered an allusive personality. She had led a chequered and colourful career. Having arrived in Australia from Poland in 1902, and speaking almost no English, she went to live with relatives who ran a store in the rural Victorian town of Coleraine. Affected by Australia’s dry heat, Rubinstein tried to make a moisturiser by experimenting with lanolin, which was in plentiful supply in the sheep district. Within twelve months she was selling homemade beauty creams to an expanding clientele; a Collins Street cosmetics salon opened in Melbourne the following year, then she expanded to Sydney. Leaving her sister running Australian operations, Rubinstein moved to London in 1908 and progressively became one of the leading cosmetics manufacturer – and richest women – in the world.

Helena Rubinstein

Helena Rubinstein was in her late eighties when William Dobell began work on her portrait. Having made several drawings in her Sydney hotel room, he went home to Wangi and dashed down five very small oil sketches on board, which conveyed her posture and skin pallor. He thought about them for some time, actually several months, then made an initial large portrait. There would be seven more in following years.

Sketch portrait of Helena Rubinstein 1957

Study for ‘Helena Rubenstein’ 1960

What baffled the artist is how Rubinstein had alternate personalities she applied to situations as needed. In personal terms he found her shy and diffident, but in the workplace she was an efficient and resourceful businesswoman: the private and the public Helena Rubinstein were so different. How to convey this psychological complexity via a painting? Added to this paradox was her size, because Rubinstein was a tiny 4 feet 10 inches (147 centimetres), although by pressure of personality she seemed taller, even large-framed. The solution he reached was to contrast her delicate face (carefully made-up, eyes distracted, quite feminine) with her powerful hands (very large, professional looking, strong). Each informs us about the sitter’s temperament. Rubinstein may appear in different gowns, different jewellery, different interiors across the eight finished portraits; and Dobell’s summary brushwork alters as he presents the sitter as either vulnerable or tough, that is, as either a private person or canny executive. But underpinning all is the ‘character’ of face and of hands, and what they reveal about the inner life of Rubenstein and her strength.

Helena Rubinstein 1957

Find out more about Discovering Dobell here.

On a Clare Day – Beef cheeks in red wine

On a Clare Day might be one of our favourite pun titles, but it’s also a wonderful book, and is launching today as part of the Clare Valley Gourmet Weekend. Jeni and Burt Surmon’s tale of leaving their city life to start a winery includes a number of delicious recipes, a few which of course incorporate some of their Mt Surmon wines! These beef cheeks sound like exactly the thing for an Autumn Sunday lunch.


Beef (calf) cheeks in red wine

Ingredients for 4 servings


4 beef cheeks

150 mL olive oil

1 x 400 g tin of tomatoes

2 tbs tomato paste

1 onion, chopped

1 red capsicum, chopped

2 sticks celery, chopped

5 cloves garlic, chopped

handful of parsley, chopped

2 springs of sage, chopped

2 sprigs of rosemary, chopped

4 sprigs of thyme, chopped

salt, pepper, grated nutmeg

250 mL beef stock

half a bottle of Nebbiolo (Mt Surmon or otherwise!)

Wash the cheeks well. Put half of the oil into a large saucepan and sauté the cheeks until brown on both sides. Remove the cheeks.

Add the remaining oil, vegetables, tinned tomatoes and tomato paste to the pot, cook for a few minutes then add the garlic, spices and herbs, and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to stop from sticking, in which case add a little stock.

Now add the cheeks, stock and red wine. Reduce the heat, put the lid on and cook gently for 5 hours.

Want to know what it’s like to start a winery? Find our more about On a Clare Day here.

Fun with books on Friyay!

Guys guys guys, the book world is out of control at the moment. Everyone’s having way too much fun and just needs to calm down a little.

Rodney Pople (1952–) I feel so pretty, so witty, 2004

An artistic representation of the frenzy of fun the book industry’s in at the moment (aka I feel so pretty, so witty [2004] by Rodney Pople)

For example? Well, the New Yorker has picked up on the fact that every single book seems to be called The Girl on the Something at the moment, and they’ve run this glorious spoof. Funny book-related content + an astute observation of the issues of depicting sexual assault + casual references to lacrosse teams? I’m in.

Next, romance seems to be the genre that just keeps giving. There’s this list of the greatest romance covers of all time, which also links to one of the most ridiculous readings of all time. Then there’s the news that KFC has legit released their own romance novella starring the Colonel, with their own schmaltzy promo video. Legit.

Finally – and this one’s for the editing dorks – the New York Times now has a copyediting quiz series so you can test your editing chops. Here’s a hot tip: it’s a good idea to be on top of your who/whom usage before you start. So much fun. So dorky.

And now, to get your weekend off to a good start, let Wakefield FM court. YouTube get you in the mood. A bit of Pharrell seems appropriate for a Friyay … Have a good weekend, everyone!


Fifty – Australian Dance Theatre

It’s difficult to know how to begin talking about a book as beautiful as this. Tracing Australian Dance Theatre’s often tumultuous and always interesting fifty-year history, Fifty contains interviews, archival research, and stunning photography.


Did you think I was exaggerating? 

Read an excerpt below, or find out more about the book here

The beginnings of Australian Dance Theatre were radical, daring and new. The company was created in Adelaide, South Australia in 1965 with a vision to support Australian dancers, choreographers, composers, and musicians, as well as visual and other associated artists. We planned to pioneer contemporary dance throughout Australia and across the world. Through our dance we wanted to inspire people everywhere with the philosophies of the modern art movement that encouraged an awakening in consciousness and an honouring of our shared humanity.

By 1970 ADT had become a visible force in the theatrical landscape of Australia and was considered to be the national contemporary dance company. How did we do this? In the beginning ADT accepted every opportunity to perform – in theatres, outdoor venues, fashion parades, social functions, school halls and on television talent shows. I constantly sought performance opportunities locally, nationally and internationally, and during the first 10 years we presented regular seasons in Adelaide, toured regionally throughout South Australia, and made regular tours to Perth, Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Hobart, Brisbane and regional Queensland and Tasmania. Additionally, the company presented dance workshops, lecture demonstrations, forums and some of the first dance-ineducation programs in Australia, quickly building up audiences for modern dance. Company records for 1971–1973, for example, show that the number of performance attendees was over 58,000. Records show that the number of performances varied each year, ranging between 68 and 173 in the years 1965 to 1975.

It was a struggle all the way, but I believed passionately in the validity of dance as a powerful art form and an essential part of our humanity. I saw the modern art movement as a vehicle for the expression of contemporary ideas and hoped that it would help lift Australia out of its colonial stagnation. I also believed that modern dance was an excellent way for Australian dancers and choreographers to express themselves as artists, particularly as Australian artists. Through all of its work ADT contributed greatly to the exciting revolutionary social changes that were happening during the 1960s and 1970s both in Australia and internationally. The fruits of the seeds sown by the company in those years are still visible today in both professional dance and educational arenas.

Founder of ADT, Elizabeth Cameron Dalman

(Photos top to bottom: Creation. 1969. Dancers: Bert Terborgh, Jennifer Barry, Roc Ta-peng Lei. Choreographer: Elizabeth Cameron Dalman. Photo: Jan Dalman. This Train, 1966, photo taken 1970. Dancers, left to right: Cheryl Stock, Bert Terborgh, Delwyn Rouse, Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, Jennifer Barry, Neville Burns. Choreographer: Elizabeth Cameron Dalman. Photo: Jan Dalman. Be Your Self. Dancer: Troy Honeysett. Photo: Chris Herzfeld, Camlight Productions.)

The mysterious sands of Qatar

Sally van Gent has lived adventurously. She’s dined with the Bedouin, dived deep into the Arabian Sea, and climbed aboard a tanker for a midnight rendezvous. Her latest memoir, The Navy-blue Suitcase, is a collection of stories from her travelling life told with ‘optimism, humour, an indefatigable faith in a better future, and a powerful sense that life is what you make of it, no matter what cards you’ve been dealt’ (ANZ LitLovers LitBlog). Today we’re sharing a little snippet from the years that Sally spent living in Doha, Qatar.


Patterns in the rock

There are no fancy restaurants or indoor cinemas in Doha. Those Westerners who work for the oil company have their own pool and sporting facilities, but for the rest of us, our social life centres around a modest sailing club and whatever home entertainment we can devise.

We know all of the expatriates in Doha who drink and want to let off steam: the Lebanese, the Armenians and French, the Germans, Brits and South Americans, Singaporeans and Aussies. Between them they throw some wonderfully wild and varied parties – so good that no one wants to fly home for Christmas.

There’s no work on Fridays, and in summer we sail or swim. Winter brings with it mild, balmy days, and we take our children into the desert to explore old forts or to slide down sand dunes on cheap tin trays.

We’re heading north one afternoon, driving along a track parallel to the beach, when there’s a flash of pink and we spot a dozen flamingos  wading through the shallows. To our left a limestone outcrop rises from the sand, and we drive over and park beside it. The children in the group run off to play on its slopes while we adults lay out the rugs,
unpack the picnic baskets and pour coffee.

Before we can drink it, Angus and his friend Hamish wave to us from the top of the hill and cry out, ‘Come and see what we’ve found!’

I climb up the slope and the boys lead me to where a rectangle has been cut deep into the rock, perhaps for the purpose of catching rainwater. Strange indentations spread out around it – circles, and holes set out in rows, reminiscent of a board game the locals play. There are boat-shapes with what look like oars. I call out to my friends and for an hour we search the rocks, finding more and more carvings. Who would do this? And why?

Illustration by Sally van Gent.

As evening unfolds the wind stills, and the late-afternoon light casts a rosy glow onto the desert. I look out over its vast sameness and am reminded of how the Bedouin pick out subtle variations in the sand, recognising landmarks that we Westerners will never see.

It’s time to pack up the picnic things and take our children home. The sun is going down and on our way back to the city we pass cars pulled over to the side of the road so their owners can turn to Mecca. They prostrate themselves on the ground and pray.

Later we ask our Qatari friends about the carvings in the rock but few have seen them. Those who have tell us they are very old, ancient even, but as to who made them or for what reason, they have no idea.

 Find out more about The Navy-blue Suitcase here.

South Australia on the Eve of War

May marks the annual South Australia’s History Festival. South Australia on the Eve of War was launched on Tuesday as part of the festival.  Here we have an excerpt from book’s introduction, written by Melanie Oppenheimer and Margrette Kleinig.


Three individuals – David Unaipon, Catherine Helen Spence and Douglas Mawson – encapsulate the spirit of South Australia in the years between Federation in 1901 and the eve of war. All, too, have graced our paper currency at one point or another, an indication of their national importance. Catherine Helen Spence, who died in Adelaide in 1910, was described as ‘the leading woman in public affairs at the turn of the century in Australia’: South Australia’s Chief Justice further described her as ‘the most distinguished woman they had had in Australia’. At the forefront of the first-wave feminist movement, which included ensuring South Australia was the first Australian state to secure voting rights for women in 1894, Spence became Australia’s first female political candidate, standing unsuccessfully for election as a delegate to the 1897 Australasian Federal Convention.

‘Preacher, author and inventor’ David Unaipon was once described as the ‘best-known Aborigine in the Commonwealth’ in the early twentieth century. Born in 1872 at the Point  McLeay Mission (now Raukkan) on the edge of the River Murray Lower Lakes, Unaipon was, on the eve of war, in his early forties. Interested in ‘philosophy, science and music’ and in recording his people’s oral stories and traditions, Unaipon had ‘led a deputation urging government control of Point McLeay Mission’ in 1912, and the following year gave evidence to a state government Royal Commission into Aboriginal matters.

In early 1914 Douglas Mawson triumphantly returned from the Antarctic, where he had led Australia’s ‘first scientific exploring endeavour beyond the Australian continent’. Lecturer in mineralogy and petrology at the University of Adelaide, Mawson was physicist on the Shackleton expedition (1907–1909) that aimed to reach the South Geographic Pole. While leading the Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911–1914, he made scientific advances in ‘cartography, geology, meteorology, aurora, geomagnetism, biology and marine science’.

These three remarkable people, who pushed the boundaries in their own particular spheres in unexpected and very different ways, point to important social, political and cultural developments in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century South Australia that had an impact both nationally and internationally.

Find out more about South Australia on the Eve of War here.

Robe Chinese Festival

This weekend is the Robe Chinese Festival, and launching at the festival is a new book by Liz Harful, author of Almost an Island. Guichen Bay and the Chinese Landings incorporates material from Almost an Island with new research. Both books will be available from the foreshore pavilion on Saturday 6 May, and Liz will be signing books from 10.30 am to 12.30 pm.

After Victoria introduced a tax on Chinese passengers during the gold rush, some 15,000 migrants landed at the small, isolated community of Robe during a calendar year, from there walking over 400 kilometres to the Victorian goldfields. As this excerpt from Almost an Island shows, the local community made the most of this influx!


Wall mural, Robe Institute.


Many local businesses and residents seized the opportunity to make money. Robe had a reasonably new jetty but the water was too shallow for ships to dock there so passengers and cargo had to be ferried ashore in lighters or row boats. [Guichen Bay harbour master Henry] Melville records that boatmen charged exorbitant prices to land the passengers and their belongings, leading to a few minor skirmishes with the Chinese who knew they were being exploited. Thomas Drury Smeaton, who did not arrive in Robe until 1864 but is often mistaken as an eyewitness, claims in a colourful account that the intention was to ‘make them pay as much as they could, and even (it is said) take the money by force’. According to Melville, the amount ranged from five to ten shillings – a price so extreme the government resident sought new regulations to prevent such extortion.

Chinese miner in traditional garb relaxing with a long-stemmed pipe by Richard Daintree. (Courtesy John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland: Neg. 51355)

Once ashore, the Chinese had to pay guides and carriers to take them overland to the goldfields. These fees varied but were generally £50 per party, depending on the number and the terms. If the newcomers were able to secure the services of a carrier, heavier items might be placed in the carrier’s wagon. But most possessions were ported in the traditional Chinese manner, across the shoulders in bundles fixed either end of a stout bamboo pole. Once they realised how far they had to travel and the limited transport available, most objects too heavy or awkward to carry were left behind. Some of these ended up in Robe households and others were abandoned along the way.

Painting titled ‘Flemington Melbourne’ showing a long line of Chinese wearing coolie hats on their way to the goldfields, c. 1856, by Samuel Charles Brees. (Courtesy State Library of Victoria: H17071)

The Chinese ‘must have put in circulation at Robe not much less than twenty thousand pounds sterling in gold and silver’, wrote Melville 30 years later in his not-always-reliable memoirs. A flotilla of fine new boats emerged in the bay to cater for the new landing trade and local businesses thrived, with new stores opening up along Smillie Street. One newspaper report in May 1857 even claimed real estate had increased in value by 200 per cent within the past 12 months.

Chinese encampment by Charles Lyall, c. 1854. (Courtesy State Library of Victoria: H87.63/2/6B)

Find out more about Almost an Island here.