Russell Drysdale was popularly regarded in the 1960s, along with Sidney Nolan and William Dobell, as one of the ‘big three of Australian art’.1 According to his contemporaries, Drysdale had successfully graced the world stage, been honoured by a retrospective exhibition in his home country and was frequently included in major survey exhibitions of Australian art being presented here and abroad.
In 1961, the year in which Dawn Flight, Bass Strait was painted, Drysdale featured in a large survey exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane. This exhibition had been curated and shown at the Art Gallery of New South Wales the previous year. Drysdale was also part of the groundbreaking exhibition Recent Australian Painting at the Whitechapel Gallery, London in 1961, the year in which he also held a successful solo show at Macquarie Galleries, Sydney. Drysdale managed to travel and work extensively throughout the Australian outback and many of the paintings from 1961, including his portraits of Australian Aboriginals and a smaller group of canvases depicting the Bass Strait Islands, were included in the Macquarie exhibition.
Bass Strait is an unpredictable and often wild expanse of ocean that separates Tasmania and Victoria. It is interspersed with a few large islands that sustain a small resident human population. The rocky outcrops and beaches support millions of seasonally migrating and nesting birds. Dawn Flight, Bass Strait pays homage to the hardy Indigenous peoples and settler culture and to the annual harvest of mutton birds and their fledglings for carcases and oil that reaches back over 10,000 years.
Russell Drysdale first visited the Bass Strait Islands in the late 1950s. His unique approach to the landscape involved both artistic and scientific approaches, reflected in the making of a unique series of paintings stimulated by his travel companion Dom Serventy, the Australian scientist and ornithologist. Serventy was internationally recognised for his exhaustive study of the migration patterns and biology of mutton birds (Puffinus tenuirostris). Like Drysdale, he had also made many expeditions into remote parts of Australia, enjoying the companionship of other scientists, artists and bushmen.
A widely promoted CSIRO documentary film produced in 1955 captures the breathtaking sight of millions of mutton birds undertaking their annual migration across the Pacific back to the Furneaux Group of islands. The spectacular homecoming to breed and nest occurred on the same day each year. Drysdale wrote in awe of the event:
The more one thinks of it, the greater the impact of that extraordinary world in which this strenuous and continuous battle for life is carried out in the background of great magnificence and the mysterious quality of half-light, the blandness of a quality day lit landscape, and the urgency of the coming of darkness when the sky becomes filled with the animation of hurrying creatures, the fantastic compulsion of the dawn flight. It begins to haunt me.2
Dawn Flight, Bass Strait depicts precisely this moment described by Drysdale as he revelled in the flight paths of birds as they descended into Fisher Island. There is an important focus on the human presence and the figure’s interaction with this momentous event. This relationship is succinctly conveyed in Birders, Bass Strait, also painted in 1961 (private collection). In both works local subject matter is set within a wider framework dealing with the unique qualities of the Australian continent and the place of humans therein. The figures are overwhelmed by the grandeur of the landscape – sulphurous yellow boulders and fiery red skies–but continue to dutifully perform the task at hand.
Dawn Flight, Bass Strait is a timely expression of Drysdale’s deep affinity with Indigenous Australians. He depicts two male figures in the painting, one who cradles a boulder while simultaneously staring impassively into space: the other crouched nearby, extending an arm into a bird’s nest hidden between the smaller rocks.
In the related painting, Man and Bird, Bass Strait 1961, one of the two figures is presented in silhouette as a ghostly apparition, an ancestor who once roamed these shores unabated. Whether Drysdale was intentionally politicising the contemporary plight of traditional custodians is unclear. The visual and thematic bind that Drysdale establishes between these works and his other paintings of Aboriginal people, particularly those from the desert region, highlight an ongoing connection to land and traditional management practices and the selective harvesting and ongoing monitoring of birds and their breeding numbers.
1. Williams, J., ‘An Artist Who Loves to Hump his Bluey’, The Australian Women’s Weekly, 5 October 1960, p.8
2. Russell Drysdale, Letter to Dom Serventy, quoted in Klepac, L., The Life and Work of Russell Drysdale, Bay Books, Sydney, 1983. See also Dutton, G., Russell Drysdale, Thames & Hudson, London, 1964 (revised edition).
Rodney James is an independent art consultant who specialises in valuations, collection management, exhibitions, research and writing, and strategic planning for art galleries and museums.