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Russell Drysdale was honoured with a knighthood in 1969 for services to the arts. However, this prestigious public and formal validation was preceded by many decades of private and informal admiration by artists, curators and collectors. In fact, Drysdales reputation grew soon after his first solo exhibition at the Riddell Gallery in Melbourne, held from 26 April to 7 May 1938. The respected art critic Basil Burdett praised the exhibition in the Melbourne Herald and added the following: I have seldom seen a more promising exhibition by a young painter anywhere.

Drysdale only held a relatively limited seventeen solo exhibitions in the thirty-five years after his first exhibition in Melbourne. These were complemented by a remarkable fifty-seven group exhibitions over the next twenty years. However, Drysdale was not an artist who churned works out, or painted for fame or financial success. His naturally modest temperament was inimical to any self-serving ambitions and his pastoralist holdings and Directorship of the family company Pioneer Sugar Mills gave him a very rare financial independence. His family company began in 1883 as Drysdale Brothers and Company and continued as such until the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR) acquired it in 1975.

The fact is that Drysdale painted because he had something to say through his art; something to uncover about the relationships and responses that bind Australians, both indigenous and non-indigenous, to the solemn and grand beauties of the Australian Outback. He used his opportunities superbly well and his vision and objectives went galaxies beyond those of any earnest hobbyist. 

In 1953, the first official survey of contemporary Australian painting was assembled to send to Britain through the support of the Arts Council of Great Britain. The group exhibition was held at the New Burlington Galleries in London. The exhibition was called Twelve Australian Artists and the three main artists to be shown were Sidney Nolan with nine paintings, William Dobell with ten paintings and Russell Drysdale, also with ten paintings. This official recognition cemented his national and international significance. Drysdales first retrospective exhibition was held in 1960 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and a further eight were held over the next seventeen years. In 1965, he was awarded the Britannica Australia Award and moved to a newly built spacious house and studio that he called Bouddi Farm. It was designed by the architect Guilford Bell, on a 4.6 hectare property at Killcare Heights in Bouddi near Gosford about forty-four kilometres north of Sydney.

Drysdales accomplished painting Portrait of an Aboriginal Girl of circa 1965 is a work that encapsulates much. The cultural influence of the publicity surrounding the idea of Aboriginal assimilation in the mid to late Fifties in Australia cannot be underestimated. Many of the issues that underpinned this political idea were implicit in the Aboriginal Act of 1939 and its protectionist agenda, which tacitly, and sometimes not so tacitly, promoted the absorption and assimilation of Australian Aborigines. Times changed and the idea of assimilation was taken over by the concept of integration and then in turn by policies of self-determination. It is easy to speculate that Drysdales humanistic temper was deeply offended by what was happening to Aborigines and what the Australian Federal Government was proposing in the early to mid- Fifties. In Drysdales painting his feelings about miscegenation, together with integrationist and assimilation issues, are made clear: in these schemes, the Australian Aborigine is doomed. Consequently, Drysdales paintings on this theme always exude deep empathy. This emotion accounts for the strange wistful qualities of Drysdales Aboriginal portraits, which gaze out at the viewer as though caught in a fateful web not of their own making. 

It is important to note that Drysdales sympathetic attitude was gained through direct observation and experience. On 18 May 1956, Drysdale and his wife Bon and their sixteen year-old son Tim set out on a six-month journey in a specially fitted-out Dodge station wagon. This was Drysdales first excursion into Australias inland and it was to make a profound impact upon his artistic direction and aesthetic aims. Certainly, he had been into North Queensland to attend monthly business meetings for Pioneer Sugar Mills, but he had never crossed west into Australias heartland. The trip eventually took in Townsville, Cairns, went across the magnitude of the Barkly Tablelands to Mt. Isa, Tennant Creek, Alice Springs, over the Musgrave Ranges, then to Ayers Rock, over to the Olgas and North to Darwin. After a stay of approximately three weeks in Darwin, Drysdale headed through the Kimberleys to Broome, Carnarvon, Perth, Kalgoorlie, across the Nullarbor to Port Augusta and through the Flinders Ranges to Adelaide before returning to Sydney. The trip covered over 22,000 kilometres and went through country rarely seen by most of Australias city dwellers, who were then diverted by preparations for Australias first Olympic Games. Drysdale took many notes and photographs, kept a diary and completed many sketches and the impressions collected and sensations felt during this trip across the Continent were to stay with him for many years to come.

During this expedition Drysdale encountered many Aborigines. Drysdales attitude to Australian Aborigines was remarkably benevolent and respectful and he remained very impressed with how well they fitted into and survived their environments whether this was in cattle stations, the central deserts or the Kimberley Plains. He admired their resourcefulness and their stately manner. In his minds eye, the Aborigine seemed to embody the essence of Australia. He was also aware of what White Settlement had done to their ancient traditions and mores. It is safe to say that Drysdale revived an interest in the depiction of Aborigines and changed the way they were perceived in art. For example, in the Nineteenth Century Aborigines tended to be portrayed as quaint and even comical and in the Eighteenth Century they were depicted as unfettered Noble Savages a phrase that originated with the English poet and dramatist John Dryden in his book The Conquest of Granada of 1672 and was later popularised as a concept by the famous French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his book The Social Contract of 1762. As Professor Bernard Smith, Australias most respected art historian, has remarked on many occasions, the historical passage was from the Noble Savage to the ignoble savage. Drysdale stood at neither of these poles.

Russell Drysdales painting Portrait of an Aboriginal Girl of circa 1965 presents the figure of a young girl in a yellow jacket standing in front of an indistinct background. Her gaze is direct and almost confrontational. The backgrounds painterly rendition is dappled with soft blue, umber and crimson tones that give some hint of sky, desert and heat. The triangular format of the figure of the young girl is made to seem monumental as it is viewed slightly from below a framed viewing that Drysdales employs for many of his portraits, whether they be indigenous or settler identities. Drysdales Aborigines are never shown in undignified poses or in demeaning situations. They always stand proud with an unmoved and indifferent dignity. We have Drysdale to thank for reminding us of the aeons-old resoluteness of the indigenous human spirit. Gone are the bent backs and masculine labours found in the paintings of McCubbin, Streeton and Roberts; in their place, in Drysdales paintings of the mid to late 1940s to the late 1960s, one finds the adamantine spirit and stoic features of steadfast women. Drysdales painting Portrait of an Aboriginal Girl of circa 1965 is one of the best of these. 

1. Burdett, B., Young Painter shows Brilliant Promise, Herald, Melbourne, 26 April, 1938, p.10

Bonython, Kim, Modern Australian Painting 1960-1970, Rigby, Adelaide, 1970.
Dutton, G., Russell Drysdale, Thames and Hudson, London, 1964.
Haese, R., Rebels and Precursors, The Revolutionary Years of Australian Art, Ringwood, Penguin, 1981.
Klepac, L., The Life and Work of Russell Drysdale, Murdoch Books, Sydney, 1983.
McQueen, H., The Black Swan of Trespass, Alternative Publishing Co-operative, 1979.
Smith, B., Smith, T., Heathcote, C., Australian Painting, 1788-2000, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 2001.
Smith, G., Russell Drysdale 1912-81, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1997.

Associate Professor Ken Wach
Dip. Art; T.T.T.C.; Fellowship RMIT; MA; PhD.
Emeritus Principal Research Fellow and Head, School of Creative Arts
The University of Melbourne.




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