Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 24, 2013

Russell Drysdale, Defining the Modern Australian Landscape, by Christopher Heathcote #BookReview

Russell DrysdaleI nearly always read books sent to me for review more or less in order of receipt, but I have to confess that this lovely new book muscled its way to the top of the pile on the very day that it arrived chez moi.  I am justifying this to myself by reminding you that Christmas, after all, is not so far away, and I have no doubt that many will want to add this book to their list of hints for Santa, and hopefully he will oblige.

Drysdale PhotographerRussell Drysdale (1912-1981) is one of my all time favourite Australian artists and I had already made a note of the new exhibition that opened last weekend at the Tarrawarra Museum of Art.  Russell Drysdale, Defining the Modern Australian Landscape is published to accompany the exhibition, which runs from 19 October 2013 to 9 February 2014.

The exhibition takes a fresh look at Drysdale’s art in three media: painting, drawing and photography.  Our home library already boasts a copy of  Jennie Boddington’s superb exploration of his photographic work in Drysdale – Photographer, which I bought when there was an exhibition at the NGV (National Gallery of Victoria) back in 1987.    I’m looking forward to seeing some of these magnificent photos again, as well as many paintings and drawings that I have never seen before because they are usually tucked away in private collections.  Yes, the iconic work The Cricketers will be on show for the first time since late last century, so this is an exhibition not to be missed.

The book features a foreword by Drysdale’s daughter Lynne Clarke, offering a rare insight into what it’s like to grow up with a father who ‘didn’t leave the house hatted and suited in the morning but was there in old clothes ready to paint’.  Then there is  an introduction by Victoria Lynn, Director of the Tarrawarra Museum of Art, and an essay by leading art critic Christopher Heathcote, who curated the exhibition.   To me, with no academic or even school background in art appreciation, this is the value of a book like this because it explains Drysdale’s place in art history in an accessible way.  And the full colour reproductions of the artworks are glorious.

(You, dear reader, could be forgiven for thinking that I might be a bit blasé about books, because I have so many of them.  But you would be wrong.  When the parcels arrive, I get just as excited now as I did when I was a kid and my parents gave me new books for Christmas and birthdays.  Indeed, you must try to imagine me last night, when I unwrapped the book from its packaging.  I hurtled down the passage to show The Spouse – who, although wrestling with a philosophy essay due in at uni on Friday – stopped what he was doing to have a look too.  Now the book is on my desk beside me, and I keep getting distracted from writing this review by looking at the pictures.  LOL This is a household where lovely new books get the same sort of welcome as a royal infant does in other (less republican) households).

What’s so special about Drysdale is that he defined the Australian Outback.  Before the war landscape artists depicted the land as productive, but Drysdale used the harsh palette of the landscape – red, brown, ochre and black – to represent its often harsh reality: drought-stricken, barren, and vast.  His people are dwarfed by dramatic skies.  These are everyday people doing everyday things, but they are positioned in a landscape remote from most of us who live along the eastern coast in cities.  They are resilient people, used to enduring a tough, solitary life.  It’s impossible to view them without being moved.

It’s fascinating to read in Heathcote’s essay about the political shenanigans in Melbourne’s art world during the 1940s.  (And this is why we need Australian art books: fascinating stuff like this doesn’t rate a mention in the other art books I have about modernism).  Modernist Art was associated with the Contemporary Art Society (CAS) but its branches were wracked by major conflict between the radical modernists and their Communist rivals.   Who knew that painting could generate such angst?

The radical modernists valued imaginative release, favouring shades of expressionism and surrealism, whereas the Communists insisted that art should press a political point, leaning towards social realism.

But both sides rejected rural subject matter:

Both groups took the line that modern art must by definition be opposed to the National landscape.  (p.11)

How barmy is that!

Neither side was impressed by Drysdale’s assertively independent stance at the exhibition staged in Sydney in 1941.  His pictures celebrating the ‘homespun virtues of rural Australia’ were judged ‘nationalist and anecdotal’ by the radical modernists, and the Communists dismissed them as ‘cloyingly sentimental’.   Ok, they’re not the great works of his later period, but still, I bet they wanted to eat their words before long!  (And of course they sell for mega-bucks now).  Heathcote explains how at this stage Drysdale was still finding his own style, describing these early works as quirky but somewhat ‘theatrical’ and ‘impudent’ whatever their intent, and how by 1942 Drysdale was influenced by British artists (painters John Piper, Graham Sutherland and the sculptor Henry Moore)  representing the impact of the war.  It was not until 1944 when Drysdale received a commission to travel into the drought-stricken western New South Wales that he found the context for his art…

Drysdale’s vision of the land, suffering in a savage drought after years of over-stocking and poor land management, struck a chord with the public.  It resonated with the imagery of TS Eliot’s The Wasteland, Salvador Dali’s desolate mindscapes and the wartime death and destruction on the other side of the world.  His desert landscapes meshed with ‘the desperate fight for civilisation being waged in the desert’ in the North Africa Campaign.  From this point on, his stark images, quintessentially Australian, depict an apocalyptic world in anguish.  Once seen, they are never forgotten.

An artist who had travelled abroad and kept in touch with contemporary trends despite the tyranny of distance, Drysdale sometimes ‘quoted’ or alluded to the work of other artists.  I particularly liked this quotation from the cultural historian Peter Gay.  It applies just as much to the literature I enjoy:

allusion and quotation are not the private presence of the snob; they are artistic and literary devices that heighten pleasure, by enriching the signification of a painting or poem.  An imitation pleases the knowledgeable both by the way it resembles, and by the way it does not resemble, the original.  The resonances and tension between the two can be amusing and subtly instructive: the skilful practitioner … can convey much in a compressed space by pouring new acid into old bottles.

In the 1950s, Drysdale began representing Aboriginal dispossession, posing figures on the margins, or silently standing within their country.  He used colour to depict their sense of belonging to the land and his compositions show them ‘contained by the country, not before it’.  The most striking element of these paintings for me is the dignity with which he invests their character:  Bob and Maudie (1972) are clearly marginalised and overtly shabby, but they have a solidity and a permanence that speaks of survival and endurance.  They have no need of crown and sceptre; they are regal in their own right.  It’s a very powerful painting.

Heathcote writes that it was at about this time that Drysdale’s unease about the landscape ‘eased off’ and became closer to reverence for the power of the environment to regenerate.  He notes that an apparently desolate untitled photograph of a lonely grave in the desert also shows tiny plants creeping up to reclaim this remnant of civilisation.   But good as the reproductions are, I can’t see these plants in the photo.  I shall have to visit the exhibition for that.

Author: Christopher Heathcote
Title: Russell Drysdale, Defining the Modern Australian Landscape
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2013
ISBN:9781743052396
Source: Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press.

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Responses

  1. At Tarrawarra eh? Hmmm … we are visiting son again soon so this might be a day trip. I like Drysdale too, but don’t know a lot about him. In fact, for some reason I was thinking about him again recently. This book sounds great.

    • It’s a lovely area for nice lunches too.
      We were thinking of the Cup Weekend…

      • I bet … I’ve been there once for a late afternoon cuppa. Gorgeous place so would love to go back for a proper look and I suspect Evan hasn’t been there.

      • Oh no, just checked and it’s closed for a private function the weekend we’re there. I might suggest we return home via there so we can catch it on the Tuesday. I’d really love to see an interpretation of him.

        • And you can write up a lovely review of the exhibition, because you’re much cleverer than I am about art *smile*
          How I wish I’d studied it at school!

          • Hmm … I’ll think about it if I get there and I will try to. I didn’t do art at school either because it was mostly practical and I’m no artist. But I did two years at the ANU (as part of a second undergraduate Arts degree – of course I really wasn’t wanting to do another BA, I just wanted to learn a bit about art!) That was a LONG time ago – 1979 and 1980 – so I don’t really know a lot, but like you I enjoy looking at art.

            • Oh me too, I can’t draw a straight line.
              But an art appreciation course, that would have been right up my alley.
              Maybe when I retire….

              • That’s exactly what I was going to suggest, when being the operative word! I haven’t found time to do any courses yet – even something like U3A, some of which are excellent I hear.

  2. This sounds great, his paintings are wonderful… Thanks for introducing the book!

  3. […] from view – at least, I stopped hearing him mentioned. So, when I discovered recently, via Lisa of ANZLitLovers, that the Tarra Warra Museum of Art in Victoria was having a Russell Drysdale exhibition on the […]


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