Menzies Art Brands



During the mid-twentieth century, a new generation of artists initiated a radical departure from the prevailing traditions of Australian painting. Leaving behind the radiant foreshores and golden pastures of the Heidelberg School, Sidney Nolan (1917-1992), Arthur Boyd (1920-1999) and Russell Drysdale ventured into the continents vast interior. Nolan travelled to the Northern Territory in 1949 and 1950 to paint the deserts chiselled outcrops as seen from the land and sky. Boyds experiences in Central Australia during the 1950s led to his celebrated Brides series, an allegorical sequence charting the fortunes of an indigenous man and his mixed-race lover.

Russell Drysdales Family Group 1953 arose from the artists time in Cape York, North Queensland, where his extended family had grown sugarcane for generations. Having experienced an itinerant childhood between England and Australia, Drysdale regarded the family plantation as one of his spiritual homes.1 The raw intensity of life in the outback became a source of enduring fascination:

It is not the obvious, but the underlying incomprehensibility, the incongruity, the pervading enigma of a land, its people, flora and fauna virtually in a condition in which it evolved, that wrenches the mind into an awareness, take it or leave it, of an ancient world which brings excitement to the soul. A world in which incongruity becomes the accepted commonplace, where the air echoes alike to the chant of the rainmaker and the drovers call for a beer. A world both sparse and plentiful, of loneliness and life, but a world that is strange, exciting
and splendid.2

Drysdales 1953 Cape York pictures are distinguished by the understated self-possession of their subjects. Indigenous people are represented not as archetypes of an exotic Other, but as individuals of a peculiar dignity and grace.3 The three figures in Family Group assume an erect posture that is accentuated by their Western attire. As Geoffrey Dutton observes, there is an authentic pathos about the stiffness; the aboriginals are not posed by Drysdale, they have adopted these attitudes themselves, instinctively in their situation.4 In other works of this period such as Shopping Day 1953 and Station Blacks, Cape York 1953, the incongruity of the aboriginals situation is emphasised by their bare feet, still familiar on the hot earth.5

In Family Group, the aboriginal peoples natural affinity with the landscape is further suggested by Drysdales characteristically warm, jewel-like palette, whereby the earthen yellows and off-whites of the background are repeated in the clothing of the figures. It is difficult to overstate the richness of Drysdales colours, which range from deep indigo to teal, burnt orange and magenta. The loose painterly style of Family Group may be attributed to Drysdales use of black oil, a medium he produced with techniques derived from the Old Masters. As Lou Klepac notes, The special properties he discovered in black oil allowed him to push the paint about, as he liked to describe it [] The fluid merging of shapes provides a richness and unity of surface which gives these works greater simplicity and impact.6

Drysdales exhibition of Cape York paintings at Sydneys Macquarie Galleries in November 1953 was a critical and commercial success. The show was a sell-out, with Paul Haefliger in the Sydney Morning Herald declaring, Drysdale is a fine draughtsman and an exceptional colourist, yet he has generally subdued his sense of drama and virtuosity to convey a mood of tenderness. One is indeed indebted to him.7 James Gleeson wrote in the Sun that from the technical point of view, these are the most mature works Drysdale has yet painted.8 Of the seventeen works exhibited, four are now in major public collections: Shopping Day, Group of Aborigines and Aboriginal Stockmen are held by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and Mullaloonah Tank by the Art Gallery of South Australia. Station Blacks, Cape York had been successfully proposed for acquisition by the National Gallery of Victoria a few months prior to the Macquarie Galleries show.9 Accordingly, major works of this series are very rare to market. It has been almost fifteen years since an equivalent work appeared at auction: Group of Aborigines was purchased for the Art Gallery of New South Wales at Christies in May 2003.10

Drysdales Cape York series has been hailed as a significant milestone in the representation of aboriginal people in non-indigenous Australian art. Although it is perhaps difficult to appreciate the novelty of Drysdales approach today, in 1953 it was [] one of considerable sociological importance.11 It is sobering to think that indigenous Australians residing in Queensland would only be granted full voting rights with the passage of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1962 almost a decade later.

Drysdales depictions of outback Australia also bear a universal significance. As in the works of his contemporaries Sidney Nolan and Patrick White (1912-1990), the figure in the desert forms a broader allegory for humanitys attempts to transcend its physical environment. As Geoffrey Dutton writes:

Drysdales relation to the figure in the landscape is a very complex one. He is indeed a great painter of loneliness [] But this is not the loneliness of alienation, of the stranger in a hostile land. It is an internal and spiritual and emotional loneliness, for which Drysdale finds compensation in the freedom of the Australian landscape and the strength implied in the ability of those who live there to survive in such an environment.12

For Drysdale, the indigenous people of central Australia were all the more remarkable in this regard, as members of an unfathomably ancient culture that had achieved an earlier and more complete stage of integration between man and environment than that found within his own people.13
The provenance of Family Group loosely mirrors the early life of its creator. The painting returns to Australia for the first time in several decades, having originated from the Glasgow estate of the late Dr Anne Walker, an internationally renowned expert in reproductive health. Walker acquired Family Group from Barry Stern Galleries while living in Sydney during the mid-1970s, and insisted upon taking it with her when returning to the UK some years later. As a rare and exceptionally fine example of Drysdales practice, the painting was undoubtedly worth the effort.

1. Klepac, L., Russell Drysdale, Murdoch Books, Sydney, revised edition, 2009, p.229
2. Dutton, G., Russell Drysdale, Thames & Hudson, London, 1964, p.56
3. Drysdale, R., et al., Russell Drysdales Australia, Ure Smith, Sydney, 1974, p.42.
4. Dutton, G., Russell Drysdale, p.50
5. Ibid., p.50
6. Klepac, L., Russell Drysdale, p.251
7. Haefliger, P., Exhibition by Russell Drysdale, Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney,
18 November 1953, p.2
8. Gleeson, J., Exciting Oils by Drysdale, The Sun, Sydney, 18 November 1953
9. New Painting for Gallery, The Age, Melbourne, 17 September 1953, p.5
10. Russell Drysdale, (Group of Aboriginal People) [originally known as Group of Aborigines] 1953, oil on canvas, 51.0 x 61.0 cm, collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased 2003 to commemorate the 20th Anniversary of the Art Gallery of New South Wales Foundation. Catalogue entry accessed online:
11. Klepac, L., Russell Drysdale, p.254
12. Dutton, G., Russell Drysdale, p.10
13. Ibid., p.48

Catherine Baxendale, B. Phil (Hons), MA (Art Curatorship)

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