Russell Drysdale
Biography of Australian Painter; Outback Landscape Paintings.
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Snake Bay at Night (1959)
By Russell Drysdale.
Tasmanian Art Gallery. One of the
greatest 20th century paintings by
an Australian artist.

Sir George Russell Drysdale (1912-81)

Contents

Biography
Early Life
Arts Training
Sydney
Critical Acclaim
1940s Paintings
1950s and 1960s Paintings
Final Period
Reputation and Legacy



Sofala (1947)
By Russell Drysdale.
Art Gallery of New South Wales.

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Biography

One of the great 20th century painters of the Antipodes, and the embodiment of Australian modern painting, Sir George Russell Drysdale was the artist whose landscape painting and edgy genre painting came closest to revealing the desolate, inhospitable nature of the Australian interior, and the utter despair brought on by unrelenting heat and drought. Contradicting the upbeat 19th century Australian Impressionism of the influential Heidelberg School - created by city-based painters like Tom Roberts (1856-1931), Fred McCubbin (1855-1917), Arthur Streeton (1867-1943) and Charles Conder (1868-1909), all of whom focused on the fertile perimeter of the country - Drysdale journeyed beyond the mountains of the Great Dividing Range deep into the interior, experiencing at first hand the flaming temperatures and pitiless power of nature. All this he captured in a pictorial blend of expressionism and surrealism, which, even today, eludes precise interpretation. Some critics, for instance, see his modern art as profoundly pessimistic about human settlement in such primeval surroundings; others, by contast, see in his paintings a sense of liberation from the oppressive and artifical yoke of the civilised world. And if his celebrated contemporary Sidney Nolan (1917-92) achieved greater success in propagating a similarly uncompromising view of Australia to the outside world, few would deny that Drysdale is one of the most important modern artists of the southern hemisphere.


The Cricketers (1948)
By Russell Drysdale.
Private Collection, Melbourne.

Early Life

Born in Bognor Regis, England, son of George Drysdale - an Australian of Scottish ancestry, whose family had owned land in Australia for over a century - and his wife Isobel, who was English. In 1923, Drysdale junior, or 'Tas' as he was known, returned to Australia with his family, settling in Melbourne, where he attended Geelong Church of England Grammar School. At the age of 17, a detached retina was discovered in Drysdale's left eye, for which he was given therapy, which included a number of drawing lessons, as well as eye exercises, both of which introduced him to the beauty and benefits of art. Even so, he remained virtually blind in his left eye for the rest of his life. After leaving school, he helped with the sheep-shearing on his father's farm outside Melbourne, before heading north to work for his uncle Cluny Drysdale, who owned a farm in northern Queensland.

Arts Training

In 1832, further eye surgery put paid to his plans to be a farmer. Instead - at the suggestion of (Sir) Daryl Lindsay, who was shown some of his drawings - he took art lessons in Melbourne with the modernist artist and teacher George Bell, who stressed the importance of form and composition, as well as creative ideas. After toying with the idea of illustration, Drysdale began taking art more seriously, and in 1934 started plein air painting in the countryside near Albury - the location of his father's new farm and close to the home of Elizabeth (Bon) Stephen, a knowledgable afficionado of modern painting, whom he married in February 1935. He also took classes in oil painting at George Bell's art school, where he worked hard in friendly competition with another young painter, Peter Purves Smith. In April 1938 he had his first one-man show, after which he and his wife travelled to London. Here, he took lessons at Iain Macnab's Grosvenor School of Modern Art, after which he spent some time at Purves Smith's atelier in Paris, and purchased day tickets for figure drawing at the Grande Chaumiere. In April 1939, with a European war approaching, the Drysdales left Europe and sailed for home.

 

 

Sydney

Back in Australia, Drysdale shared Bell's home studio in Melbourne where he was reluctantly drawn into a series of upsets within the Contemporary Art Society. This rather disagreeable situation was made even worse when he was rejected for military service. In response, Drysdale left Melbourne in 1940 and moved to Sydney. At this point, although he was seen by several observers as an important emerging talent, he lacked any kind of strong personal vision. Two famous examples of his early work include: The Rabbiter and His Family (1938, National Gallery of Australia) and Monday Morning (1938, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). However, the move to Sydney marked the beginning of a new and serious phase in his art. By the time it was over, he would be one of Australia's best landscape artists.

Critical Acclaim

According to the biographer Lou Klepac, Drysdale believed that it was only when he arrived in Sydney that he really began to paint. This was because - with no little encouragement from Peter Purves Smith - he finally found his subject-matter and his style - the desolate Australian interior and its inhabitants. This theme would occupy him for the rest of his life, and his paintings - which typically employed bizarre and dreamlike imagery, consisting of elongated (later more-rounded) human figures, set in an arid (often surrealistic) wasteland, alongside unsettling objects and motifs - pointed to an environment and type of life that was at times beyond the known and apparent. Some of his works have echoes of the Metaphysical Painting of Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978). Examples of his work include: Man Feeding His Dogs (1941, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane); Man Reading a Paper (1941, University of Sydney Art Collection); and the unusual picture The Bath (1941, Private collection). These paintings were exhibited in 1942, at the highly successful one-man show that established Drysdale - along with William Dobell, Elaine Haxton, and Donald Friend - as one of the leading modern artists of the day.

1940s Paintings

In 1944, he was dispatched into far western interior of New South Wales by The Sydney Morning Herald to illustrate the effects of a calamitous drought, which was ravaging the outback. The resulting series of paintings, followed by a second series on the derelict gold-mining township of Hill End, further enhanced his reputation, as did his picture of the neighbouring town of Sofala (1947, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney) which won him the coveted the Wynne Prize for landscape in 1947. The latter depicts a deserted main street in the heat of a late afternoon, the breathless air red with dust. It expresses the difficult and lonely existence faced by settlers in a harsh, unforgiving land. In 1948, he painted The Cricketers (1948, Private Collection, Melbourne) - arguably one of Australia's greatest genre paintings - which was described by the National Gallery in Canberra as one of the most haunting images in Australian art.

Drysdale continued to refine his painting as he went along. Thus in 1945, the more strident elements in his pictures gave way to a quieter mood as his extreme figural elongation was replaced by larger and more rounded forms, suggesting a new monumentality. The Drover's Wife (1945, National Gallery of Australia) was an early example of the change. Other examples include Joe (1950, Private Collection) and Maria (1950, Private Collection). Only one element in his painting rarely changed - his characteristic figure-in-landscape.

1950s and 1960s Paintings

Drysdale's reputation continued to soar during the 1950s and 1960s, as he explored more of his native interior along with its inhabitants. Important works from the period include: the group portraits of Cape York Aborigines in the early 1950s; the spooky Snake Bay at Night (1959, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery); and Man in a Landscape (1963, British Royal Collection). In 1954, he was chosen along with Nolan and Dobell, to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale.

Unlike other Australian artists of his generation, Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd, for example, Drysdale never lived abroad for any length of time, but he remained a regular exhibitor in London, where his 1950 show at Leicester Galleries, at the invitation of Sir Kenneth Clark, represented a major milestone in the history of Australian art, by convincing British critics that Australian painters had a distinctive vision of their own. In the process, he attracted a number of influential patrons, including Sir Kenneth Clark himself, Captain Neil McEacharn, Edgar Kaufmann and Kym Bonython. The latter was one of the most important art dealers and collectors of contemporary Australian art in the period 1945-60. Drysdale was also an active exhibitor in his own country, with a total nine solo exhibitions at the Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, during the period 1942-62. In 1960 a retrospective of his painting was organised by the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Final Period

Drysdale's personal life was jolted in the early 1960s with the suicide of his son, Timothy, in July 1962 and of his wife Bon, in November the following year. In June 1964, he married an old friend Maisie Joyce Purves Smith, the widow of his artist-friend Peter. He became a trustee of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (1962-76), and a member of the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board (1963-76). In 1969, he was knighted for his services to art, and in 1980, he was made a Companion of the Order of Australia. He died of cancer at his home, in June 1981.

Reputation and Legacy

Drysdale played a vital role in helping to establish a valued and independent niche for Australian art. His exhibitions in London, for instance, during the early 1950s, instigated the international recognition of Australian artists, who quickly included Dobell, Nolan, Boyd, Clifton Pugh, and others, all of whom came to international prominence during the 1950s. Of all his contemporaries, Drysdale was seen as the closest to the Australian soil, although, as stated above, critics remain unsure of his message. At least one major art historian in Australia, noting that Drysdale's outback was hot, red, isolated, desolate and threatening, interprets his parched red earth as meaning that man had lost control of the land. Others however are not so sure. They believe that in the hostile interior, Drysdale found a strange sort of peace.

Collections

Paintings by Russell Drysdale can be seen in many of the best art museums in Australia, and overseas, including the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth; as well as the Tate Collection, London; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

• For biographies of other modern Australian artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more about 20th century landscape painting in Australia, see: Homepage.


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