“Something happened here, and happened nowhere else in the world,” says Christopher Heathcote, curator of a new exhibition focusing on artist William Dobell. “We actually had a court case over modern art.”

In 1943, Dobell’s portrait of artist Joshua Smith won the Archibald Prize. It was deeply unflattering: Smith is depicted as gaunt and sallow, his limbs elongated, his eyes beady. Conservative voices in art weren’t happy. To artist and fellow Archibald entrant Mary Edwards, “grotesquerie [had] been awarded the prize” in “a Pearl Harbor attack on art”. She and another artist took Dobell and trustees of the National Art Gallery of NSW to the NSW Supreme Court on the grounds that the painting wasn’t a portrait, but a caricature.

For Dobell, that wasn’t a new allegation.

“It all goes back to an old debate that started in the age of Hogarth and never went away,” says Heathcote, referring to the famous English painter, satirist and editorial cartoonist. “When artists paint lower-class people, they’re called caricatures. People think art should deal with nice things and decent people. They don’t like the sordid and the everyday.”

The court dismissed Edwards’s claim, but the Archibald controversy overshadowed Dobell’s career. For Heathcote, this show is about reframing the way we look at him. “That’s why I called it Discovering Dobell,” says Heathcote. “Reading everything that’s been written about him, there’s a lot of recycling. I wanted a fresh approach.”

Discovering Dobell paints a more detailed picture of the Newcastle-born artist who focused his eye and paintbrush on the seemingly ordinary. He painted the poverty of mid-20th-century London and Sydney with frankness, and honed his approach to abstraction during his time in Papua New Guinea, taking inspiration from body painting and bird plumage. Alongside his finished works the exhibition includes a selection of sketches that give us a look into his process.

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Beside Discovering Dobell is Dobell’s Circle, a selection of works by peers and friends: Russell Drysdale draws on the dramatic light and lonely desolation of the outback; Sali Herman captures some thoroughly mundane, run-down houses; Jeffrey Smart’s The Dome similarly captures the ordinary and industrial.

For Heathcote, this collection represents another overlooked story. “The story of Australian art is really the story of Heide, and a few hangers on,” says Heathcote. “But art was happening in other places, too.

“We’ve had one narrative for a very long time,” he says. “I’m proposing another.”

Discovering Dobell is at the TarraWarra Museum of Art until August 13.