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. Drysdale’s work was already very well known to his artistic peers and to collectors and curators, but this official recognition cemented his national and international significance. Since that time, the then forty-one year old artist never looked back and he is now universally regarded as one of Australia’s greatest creative figures.
Drysdale was a member of the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board in Canberra from 1962 to 1972 and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney from 1963 to 1976. Drysdale’s first retrospective exhibition was held in 1960 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales; in 1965, he was awarded the Britannica Australia Award and in 1969, he received a knighthood.
The 1997 National Gallery of Victoria’s touring exhibition of Drysdale’s paintings entitled Russell Drysdale 1912-1981, was the first opportunity that the Australian public had for thirty-seven years to evaluate the full scale of his work. The previous opportunity was a Drysdale retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1960. It was also the first Drysdale retrospective exhibition ever seen in Melbourne. What was presented in the Melbourne retrospective were brooding paintings quite different from the majestic vistas of Arthur Streeton or the pastoral idylls of Frederick McCubbin. Drysdale’s landscapes with their wasted trees, low horizon lines, scenes of desolation, arrangements of inhuman forms, upturned tree stumps and their wistful qualities are at the opposite end of the clear autumnal calm of a Streeton or McCubbin canvas. Drysdale was obviously a very different sort of artist, with a very different point of view.
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 Drysdale’s first excursion into Australia’s 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, the family company of which he was a director, but he had never crossed West into Australia’s 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 Australia’s city dwellers, who were then diverted by preparations for Australia’s 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. During this expedition Drysdale encountered many Indigenous people and his attitude to them confirmed the unprejudiced depictions found in the paintings of Cape York Peninsula Aborigines in his solo exhibition at Macquarie Galleries in Sydney in 1953. Drysdale’s 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 mind’s eye, the Aborigine seemed to embody the essence of Australia.
There is much to suggest that Drysdale had a very sympathetic understanding of Aborigines’ relationship to the Australian landscape and their adaptation to local conditions and local environments. He was also aware of what White Settlement had done to their ancient traditions and lores. 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 French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his book The Social Contract of 1762. As Professor Bernard Smith, Australia’s 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 and one can sense how he sees the nexus between the Aborigine and the land even in some of his writings. Note, for example, how Drysdale moves from a description of the effects of his travels around the land to his feelings for the Aborigines in the land in the following evocative and lucid passage from the catalogue of a 1958 exhibition of his paintings at Leicester Galleries in London:
Magnificent in dimension, old as time, curious, strange, and compelling, it rests in ancient grandeur indifferent to the challenge of man. Within the vast region exist an infinite variety of people, things, and places. The tropical swamps and coral coasts of Arnhem Land, the great red deserts of the centre, the broken mountains and the ravaged gorges of the Kimberleys, and the long, slow spread of the plains. His is a land, mysterious and unknown until the last century, that held within itself curious forms of life, that in the rest of the world had long ago passed into the remote darkness of time. There are still men of stone-age culture living a forgotten pattern of life. Nomads of the desert, roaming as their ancestors roamed unhindered in the dawn of history. In rock and range and river is the meaning of their life and the rhythm of their way. In the poetry of their legends is the story of mankind, in the paintings of their caves the ancestry of art.1
The core of the sentiments expressed in this passage is what engendered the imagery of Drysdale’s artistically refined painting Desert Children of 1958, which was painted in Chelsea in central London from recollections of his travels of 1956. The rectangular painting shows a desolate desert scene composed of three planes richly coloured with mottled dark tones in the foreground, lighter red and sienna colours in the mid-ground and a varied blue and ultramarine expanse of cloudless sky. The left foreground is dominated by a clump of leafless saplings with an Aboriginal child standing in front of it. Another Aboriginal child is shown in the right mid-ground to suggest some visual depth in the composition. This depth is also conveyed by the fact that the area between the figures is composed of a triangle, which the eye scanning from left to right naturally reads as an indication of perspective. No other hint of depth exists in the painting and the work is enlivened by the visual tension of the recessional illusion of the triangular structure of the work and the contrasting flatness of the surrounding landscape – this is exactly the sort of pictorial device that marks the paintings of the French artist Yves Tanguy. The most important thing to note in this very impressive painting is how closely the foreground figure is linked to the trees and the earth. The figure is painted in such a way that merges the individual elements so that trees, figure and earth co-mingle visually. This unifying effect is made all the more obvious with the splashes of ochre on the child which mimics the colours of the earth around it. Also the arms and legs of the figure are rendered so that they are almost indistinguishable from the branches and trunks of the trees. These compositional and painterly factors visually link the Aborigine with the land in paint, just as Drysdale’s words above do in words. Most of Drysdale’s paintings of this period share this artistic characteristic and aesthetic aim. For example, Drysdale’s very accomplished painting Landscape in the Kimberleys of 1958, formerly of the Holmes á Court collection in Perth, presents the torso of a male Aborigine figure in the foreground in front of a desolate and treeless panorama of red sands and large boulders. The boulders are semi-abstracted shapes that are painted in reds, ochres and yellows. The remarkable thing is that these colours, and to some extent their lines, are repeated in the figure’s body, especially on its right shoulder. Even the figure’s head is rendered in a way that imitates the form of the adjacent boulders – the figure is virtually camouflaged against the landscape. This is not quite the case in Drysdale’s fine painting The Red Shirt of 1958, formerly in a private collection in London, but the male Aborigine to the left blends into the bare landscape through the shared colours of his body and the red shirt of the title – it is as though all, man and landscape, are made of the same substance.
The point is clear and the integration is very successful in all three of these paintings. All these uniquely composed paintings by Drysdale, with their carefully arranged pictorial features, outline the visage of a very different and hidden Australia. It is as though the distinctive way Drysdale’s pictorial forms are piled up and scattered about is propelled and shaped by a new associationalist, rather than descriptive or narrative, view of Australia’s vast spaces and varied places and man’s place in them. Even Drysdale’s carefully crafted and remarkable word-images of inland Australia bear out all these particular observations:
The thin veins of modern progress traversing the land occupy little space. The rest is vast. Great plains and desiccated mountains… the all-pervading mulga whose thrifty shade dissolves into visions of vulgar mementoes carved for city dwellers… wild flowers after rain, mulla-mulla, parakeelya and everlastings. Lacewood and bullwaddy, thrusting out like Rackham’s childhood fantasies. Bulldust, heat, drought, and mud-dried animals embedded in the stinking remnants of a waterhole. Rain like rods bursting into the dust and soil-engorged water pelting down a gully. The myriad insects of the wet that propagate and die and plague the life of animal and man. Or the grandeur of the ranges suffused in the glow of evening light. The tremendous sweep of sky and plain and the brilliance of the stars at night. Ominous red skies of dust, or the incandescent blue of evening when a lonely tree stands sharp in the distance and a shout will carry for miles.2
These are the thoughts of a man in love with the land. These are highly evocative words fashioned by the flickering associations of an acutely aware and artistic man firmly in grasp of what he is witnessing.
Sir Russell Drysdale’s magisterial painting Desert Children of 1958 is propelled by all these interlocked sentiments and it presents the artist at his commanding and reflective best. It was painted in London far away from the source of its inspiration and it contains all his hallmark attributes. It is formed of deep conviction and painted with consummate skill.
1. Drysdale in Catalogue of an Exhibition of New Paintings of Northern Australia by Russell Drysdale, Leicester Galleries, London, 1958, p.3-4. Cited in: Smith, G.,
Russell Drysdale 1912-81, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1997, p.29
2. Russell Drysdale in Catalogue of an Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings by Russell Drysdale, 30 September 1965 – 27 October 1965, London, The Leicester Galleries, 1965, u.p. (9-10). Originally written by Drysdale for Allen David’s, Form, Colour, Grandeur, Melbourne, Grayflower Publications, 1962 and republished in Dutton, Geoffrey, Russell Drysdale, London, Thames and Hudson, 1964
Bonython, K., 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
Former Principal Research Fellow
and Head of the School of Creative Arts
The University of Melbourne