ART - AUSTRALIAN - RUSSEL DRYSDALE RETROSPECTIVE
|In the post-war decades,
Russell Drysdale defined the outback landscape for settler Australians
just as Nolan deepened its historical dimension and Arthur Boyd its
mythology. Humphrey McQueen responds to the current Drysdale
retrospective by considering how 1998 Australians should read his
in the bush
Drysdale's work had not always been
popular. His lumpish ladies had been condemned as certain, if shown
overseas, 'to defeat the immigration policy.' His lanky blokes were
scorned as impositions of eugenically unfit Oklahoma sharecroppers.
Russell Drysdale (1912-81) had supporters
in the Fairfax and Murdoch press, but how his harsh tones and ungainly
figures came to be accepted as heroically Australian as Streeton's
blue-gold scenery or Roberts's musculine shearers is another instance of
the popularisation of museum art awaiting a chronicler of calendars and
greeting cards, of dealers and academe.
The success that set designers had in
transferring Drysdale's townscapes to the stage had its sources in the
literary, narrative and theatrical elements abound. These aspects are
apparent in his current retrospective.
Among the most famous of Drysdale's works
is 'The drover's wife' with its echo from the short story by Henry
Lawson. Murray Bail, Barbara Jeffries and Frank Moorhouse have added to
the legends concerning Drysdale's figure. If Drysdale did borrow his
title from Lawson, is it not also possible that the flowers in 'The back
verandah' (1942) and 'Country child' (1948) were cuttings from 'Water
Around 1930 the poet Kenneth Slessor had
described 'Country Towns' as 'sprayed with the sarcasm of flies.'
Without suggesting that his verses inspired Drysdale, we need to be less
stuck on the stoic and more alert to the comic in his images, bearing in
mind the jocularity that Henry Lawson introduced into his jousts with
Paterson about the charms of the city against those up country. The
country wife who identified with the 'Woman in a landscape'(1948) picked
up this whimsy when she defended the truthfulness of that portrayal
because the artist had recognised her bunions, her forgetfulness in
regard to 'Venus Form' tablets and her failure to keep hairdressing
In a similiar mood, Drysdale's 'Going to
the pictures' (1941) presents the family in their Sunday best, as if on
their way to a funeral rather than to a lighter entertainment. No one
who revelled in the impishness of his companion Donald Friend (1915-89)
could have kept a straight face before such incongruities. 'Man reading
a paper' (1941) shows the figure sitting on a stump but no great wit is
needed to see that his pose is that of another latrine sitter, one whose
dunny has been knocked down, perhaps by emus.
In Drysdale's portraits, group or
individual, the background is most often like a photographer's painted
cloth. The distance between the foreground figure and the Australian
landscape suggests that Drysdale did not accept that these bushmen were
at one with their environments.
Much of what became typical in Drysdale's
Australians is highlighted by the atypical aspects in his 1948 portrait
of Donald Friend. The perpendicular line of his back and left leg
repeats that of both father and son in 'The rabitter and his family'
from ten years before. That is where the similarity ends since
everything about the image of Friend is at odds with the world that
Drysdale's usual subjects inhabit. He shows that he is no more at home
in this landscape than is the ecceliastical architecture behind him.
Placing his boot on a slab of rubble mocks the church as a rock of ages.
Some of Drysdale's subjects, for example, 'Woman in a landscape', stare
past the viewer. Others, such as 'Drover's wife', stare through us.
Friend is staring at us, an invitation that is far from angelic.
To discover that Drysdale has left room
in his world of men for the ludicrous, even the ribald, is in keeping
with the 'hard case' of the Australian legend. But what if those images
were subversive along the lines that they were accused of being in the
1940s, not celebrations of endurance but depictions of how survival had
been won by a denial of thought, through an erasure of the imagination?
In 'Middleton's Rouseabout', Lawson had described this 'type of a coming
nation' as a pastoralist who is proud that he 'hasn't any idears.'
This calm is furthered by the portrayal
of specific actions: feeding dogs, taking a bath, filing one's nails.
Remote as he was from the techniques of the impressionists, he shared
their concern to convey the particular moment. 'Sunday evening' (1941),
for example, is distinguished from the other nights of the week, if at
all, by the baby's bath.
Drysdale's handling of time cut short the
plot lines. Compared with poets, painters have always been at a
disadvantage when representing action. Within a single frame,
story-telling has to be distilled to cathartic moments. Drysdale went
around this issue by establishing a world outside the passing of time.
His people wait but without expectations just as they seem free of
impatience, as in 'Soldier' (1942). Silence is visualised. A few figures
are listening though no one is speaking. Eventually, Drysdale owned up
by entitling one of these country-town street scenes 'Ennui' (1944).
Because creators do both more and less
than they set out to achieve, our interpretation of Drysdale's
depictions can not be confined to a discerning of his intentions, even
if they could be known with certainty. Avoidance of the intentional
fallacy means trusting the imagery not the artist. But we are less
likely to question either so long as discussion is dominated by the
circularity that asserts that Drysdale was a good bloke and so his
portrayals of Aussie battlers must be open-handed congratulations.
Donald Friend knew better than to accept this equation, observing that
the isolates in Drysdale's work were at odds with his personality as the
most companionable of mates.
To some extent Drysdale's representation
of time as inaction resulted from his retreats to his city studio. No
one could expect him to complete 'Moody's Pub' from across the street in
the manner of Monet outside Rouen cathedral. But it is a paradox that
most of the bush pictures were done in Vaucluse or London.
The uses to which he put the photographs
that he took relentlessly are unclear. For 'George Ross of Mullengandra'
(1950) he combined elements from one snap of the street and another of
the title-subject. But since he painted by Sydney Harbour, he must have
relied on his memory for the light and colours of the Riverina. He also
sketched in the field and shifted the results from one composition to
another as he did with a figure from a drawing for 'Cricketers' to the
stance of Donald Friend in his portrait.
The Retrospective allows us to identify
three phases in Drysdale's painting: the first rattled around a melange
of modernist influences up to 1942; the second was dominated by the
monumental landscapes till 1950; and third covered the remainder of his
career which added less of moment.
The early period extends from his student
years with George Bell in Melbourne to his retreat to Albury away from
further Japanese assaults on Sydney. Several pieces were classroom
assignments, no better or worse than millions of similar efforts. His
rural subjects were not off the beaten track but populated the Hume
Highway along which he moved back and forth to Vaucluse, journeys to
which he alluded by the prominence given to cars.
Interest in the pre-1943 pieces lies in
how Drysdale would carry forward some of the conventions about interiors
from the English artist Walter Sickert (1860-1942). He also adapted
devices from the Surrealism of fellow Melbourne painter Peter Purves
Smith (1912-49) who were students together in Paris in 1938. His 1930s
debts were to the range of Europe's post-impressionists, from Cezanne to
de Chirico, Picasso and Modigliani. A false naivete of floral
patternings, one of a number of decorations a
la Matisse, in 'The Rabbiter and his family' (1938) is replaced by
angular awkwardnesses which the people depicted might have produced had
they taken to sketching each other. Throughout his working life,
Drysdale adapted devices developed by fellow painters. 'Two children'
(1945-46) owes their placement and even their perplexities to any number
of holy pictures. Blackman's girls might have skipped across to
Drysdale's 'Basketball at Broome' (1958).
The middle years of 1943 to 1950 became
the defining ones. Upheavals of war altered his content. People now talk
with each other, as in 'Home leave' and on the 'Local V. D. C. parade'
The major shift was towards
monumentality, most obvious in a doubling in canvas sizes for depictions
of Albury railway station and airfield. So as not to lose himself in
these larger spaces, Drysdale worked his way across grids pencilled onto
As he developed confidence, Drysdale
received an assignment that revolutionised his imagery. Retracing
Lawson's 1892 tracks into the far west, Drysdale illustrated reports on
the 1944 drought for the Sydney
Morning Herald. Those drawings were evocative yet illustrative. The
presence of that second quality in all his works did not limit his
talent to journalism. He reached beyond photographs in oils by treating
aspects of the scenery as stage-props to be arranged according to the
moods he wished to establish. A willingness to transpose elements and to
transport buildings from their sites was anchored by an attention to
details such as a commode, a kero-case or shop signs. However, by their
fifth appearance in 1965, the pom-pom slippers were wearing thin.
Understanding of Drysdale's images
requires greater care in the application of surreal and grotesque to his
non-naturalistic elements. Surreal is not an antonym for suburban
anymore than grotesque is a synonym for repulsive.
Despite the force of narrative beneath
Surrealist imagery, their suspension of movement was indicative of a
dream-state. Although Drysdale called one of his pictures 'Joe's Garden
of Dreams' (1942), he painted neither his own dreams and desires, nor
those of his sitters - who often as not were standing. Another canvas
shows 'Joe Resting' (1945) in a manner which makes it nigh impossible to
believe that his slumber could be disturbed by dreams. Indeed, he might
be as dead to the world as Dobell's landlord. Similarly, even when
Drysdale's portrait subjects are merely drowsing, he presents no hint of
Drysdale moved beyond the silences of
Surrealism into an application of the Grotesque in its original sense of
blurring the boundaries between animal, vegetable and mineral. The term
had come into being late in the fifteenth century to describe the decor
excavated in Roman grottoes. Through the eighteenth century in England
it became associated with caricature. Then Ruskin reversed its decline
by championing a Noble Grotesque as the test of greatness in a
civilisation. The brush with grotty came much later.
The original sense of Grotesque dominates
'Dead bullock' (1945). Block out the skull and you have a mountain
range. The dissolution of flesh into soil is a perfect example of the
grotesque. More obliquely, the skeletal forms of the man and the dogs he
is feeding could be interchangeable. The dead tree trucks and stumps
might be petrified or they could lurch around on their branch-like legs.
The galvanised iron sheets suggest wings or leaves and they mimic
clothes on the line. Juxtaposition of emus against iron sheets brings
the latter to life while making the birds sculptural. None of these
transgressions is more striking than the figure in the front of
'Crucifixion' (1945) where feet protrude from inside what would
otherwise be a hollow log. His figures are not readily distinguishable
from the statues that stand to their side, or even from the balancing
rocks in 'Desert landscape' (1952).
The third period from 1950 was the
longest and proved the least rewarding. It began with an offer, via
Kenneth Clark, of an exhibition in London. Drysdale did not have enough
work ready and so went travelling north for subjects. He looked for
inspiration in new places, rather than by pressing deeper into the
materials of living with which he was just becoming familiar. In the
1880s, the Irish critic George Moore had pointed to the 'corruptive
influence' on painters from the pursuit of 'the novelty of the colour or
the character of the landscape.' The travel-bug is a failing
common in Australia where, at the first sign of running dry,
painters have set out to find the inland sea of inspiration. One of the
few to succeed was Hans Heysen who returned to the Flinders Ranges
throughout two decades after taking the previous twenty years to know
Hahndorf. One consequence of Drysdale's travels was that his portraits
present what he identified as 'characters' rather than character
The offer of that London show caused
Drysdale to alter his manner of painting. The curator, Geoffrey Smith,
explains that instead of Drysdale's staining canvases he worked directly
on to the white ground, applying fewer layers of paint. This speed is
apparent in the changed appearance of the clouds. During the previous
dozen years, Drysdale had used the shape, density and colours of clouds
to reinforce the mood of his subject-matter. With horizons set low, and
usually spreading right across the canvas in dough-like rolls, the
clouds had ample space to impose their effects.
Despite the catalogue's detailing of
provenance, only once does the catalogue specify a sum of money, the £150
commission for 'The Cricketers' (1948). In a world which knows the price
of everything and the value of nothing, curators can be forgiven for not
allowing cash more prominence than canvas. Notwithstanding that
abstemiousness, how a painter pays his paint bills is as much a part of
the creative process as is mixing colours. To omit the basics of
bookkeeping is as misleading as interpreting oil paintings from
black-and-white photographs. Furthermore, a comparison of Drysdale's
prices with those of an ancient and a modern, Streeton and Dobell, would
contribute to our understanding of how Drysdale's reputation grew.
Drysdale's family owned rural properties
and in the 1930s an allowance kept him and his first wife in more than
frugal comfort. Was he receiving a half-yearly dividend cheque in 1950s
and so did not need to chase every quid? Was his drive to produce for
London financial, or for recognition? Accountancy alone will never
answer such questions, but its omission leaves any explanation
In his travels for exotic landscapes he
found exotic people and introduced Aborigines and Islanders into his
gallery. Many of the Aboriginal individuals and groups after 1950, like
his 1930s settlers, stand out against landscapes that look like painted
stage-cloths. Nor do they talk among themselves but gaze listlessly.
Dignity and endurance are shadowed by the passiveness that he gave to
almost all his subjects. Thus, several of the weaknesses in Drysdale's
depiction of Aborigines resulted from how he painted anyone, not just
from a failure to connect with the blacks.
Yet Drysdale did not indulge in the
myth-mongering of Ainslie Roberts. One approach to clarifying his
attitudes would be to contrast his treatment of Aborigines with that of
another set of outsiders, Greek cafe proprietors.
Two of the better known images Snake
Bay at Night (1959) and Mangula
(1961), merge Aborigines with the landscape. This blending of the human
with the vegetable and mineral continued his use of the Grotesque. These
mergers were helped by the local practice of carving funeral posts, By
including these alongside the human figures, Drysdale brought the living
and the dead, the animate and the inaminate into a single world.
Beyond matters of genre, two political
questions arise. Are we to read these images as presenting the
Aborigines as closer to nature than to culture, and hence less than
human? Or were the pictures awakening Australians of the 1950s to that
identification with country that we now accept as the wellspring of
Drysdale's realisations appeared
complacent compared with the sexual and political conquests scarified by
Arthur and David Boyd, where the violence is in keeping with how rampant
we now know was the stealing of children. But in defence of Drysdale's
sobriety, it should be remembered that when he first moved through the
north, many communities had had little contact with settlers, and most
often none with the mining companies that soon were to despoil their
country. So the connections between place, people and rituals could be
as complete in life as he depicted.
His images of Aborigines are difficult to
evaluate because between Drysdale in 1950s and us in the 1990s there
looms the assumption that the commodifying of Aboriginal imagery has put
us in contact with the spirituality that we have packaged as the
A recent determination to find nothing
but racism in every settler response to indigenes might make critics
feel thoroughly Post-Colonial but such one-dimensionality not only
ignores the contexts in which the works were made and received, but also
assumes that an unalloyed response is ever possible for creators.
Tensions between thought and deed stimulate the artist and should inform
Feminist and post-colonial critics have
to establish their cases as if the gender or ethnicity of the artist
were unknown. Otherwise the interpretation is circular. Thus, before
dumping Drysdale's frontal nude of a Aboriginal woman (1961) in with the titillations of B. E. Minns or a Jolliffe
cartoon, femioticians should compare it with the series of nubile native
girls done by Margaret Olley around 1961. She was adapting a masculinist
tradition from Ingres and Manet. Drysdale was treating a legendary
figure, Mangula, though also working from a life model.
The National Gallery of Victoria has
continued its penchant for picture books instead of catalogues. The
formula is to face each painting with details of provenance, previous
exhibitions and references in the literature. Taking the works one by
one precludes thematic treatment. The eight-page introduction is largely
biographical. Such commentary as there is strings together quotations
from contemporary critics and correspondents with extracts from the
diaries of Donald Friend. As often as not, these materials do not fill
even half the page. Analysis is minimal.
Absent also is relevant scholarship from
beyond art history. For example, not a line of the research into public
monuments is used to illuminate Drysdale's 'War Memorial' (1950). Tom
Griffiths's multiple prize-taking Hunters
and Collectors (1995) questioned the assumptions of the National
Trust in country towns. Those pages spark questions about whether
architectural restorers have succumbed as easily as theatre audiences to
As more curators abandon the individual
genius as the organising principle for attracting crowds, the range of
Drysdale's imagery suggest themes such as the bushfire, settler images
of indigenes and drought that can be explored in future exhibition.
Although the collection chosen to open the extensions to the National
Gallery of Australia, New Worlds
from Old: 19th Century Australian and American Landscapes, avoids
the single genius it reinforces an even more mindless identification of
Australia with landscape. Drysdale demonstrated that it was more of a
backdrop to greater human dramas.
The Drysdale exhibition continues at the
Art Gallery of New South Wales until 10 May, then to Queensland from 18
May to 28 June, Darwin from 20 July to 30 August before concluding in
Hobart from 23 September to 15 November.
Worlds from Old is at the National Gallery in Canberra until 17 May
and then in Melbourne from 3 June to 10 August. From there it proceeds
to Hartford and Washington.
Humphrey McQueen's books on art include
The Black Swan of Trespass, The Emergence of Modernist Painting In
Australia to 1945 (APCOL, 1979) and Suburbs of the Sacred (Penguin,