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 iconography.

Faces in the bush
When the stage lights came on for the opening scene of Dorothy Hewitt's Man from Mukinupin, audiences gasped with recognition at the tones and forms from Russell Drysdale's country towns. How had those 1940s images of the bush become part of the consciousness of Sydney theatre-goers in the mid-1980s?

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 painter's oeuvrewhere 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 Them Geraniums'?  

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 appointments.

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' (both 1943).

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 the canvas.

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 daydreaming.

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 studies.

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 inadequate. 

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 Aboriginal cultures?

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 Dreaming.

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 the critic.        

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 Drysdale's townscapes.

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.

New 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, 1988).