Art Essays

Russell Drysdale: The Drawings

Published March 3, 2012
Russell Drysdale, Church and Buildings, Hill End,1948

When Lou Klepac tells us that Russell Drysdale “was always reluctant to get on with painting or even drawing,” it is the merest understatement. Of all the Australian artists who have made a lasting contribution to the national culture, Drysdale was the least driven by either ambition or compulsion.
This year is the hundredth anniversary of Drysdale’s birth, and it is being celebrated by a touring survey of his drawings, currently on view at the S.H.Ervin Gallery. The show has been put together by Klepac, who has also written and published a new book on the drawings. He is well qualified for the task, being the author of the definitive monograph on Drysdale, reissued by Murdoch Books in 2009.
With any other painter of comparable stature, a drawing show might seem like a disappointing way of marking a centenary. In Drysdale’s case it was hardly possible to do more because of the disappointing retrospective organised by the National Gallery of Victoria in 1998. That exhibition, which travelled all over the country, presented Drysdale’s work in the most perfunctory manner. It was an object lesson in how to make an important artist look second-rate.
The saving grace of the present show is that Drysdale’s drawings are a crucial component of his oeuvre. One of the bizarre aspects of the 1998 event is that it did not include any drawings, but they are essential if we are to see Drysdale complete. One could also make a case for his photographs, although not with the same sense of necessity.
Drysdale, always known as “Tass” to his friends, was a painfully slow and recalcitrant painter who fell back on his drawings to add weight to many exhibitions. There were several dedicated drawing surveys during his lifetime, including a 1980 exhibition at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, organised by Klepac; and an impressive show at the Joseph Brown Gallery in Melbourne, in 1981, only a few months before his death. In the catalogue of that exhibition, novelist Murray Bail pointed out the “steadiness” of Drysdale’s drawings alongside the tragic overtones of the paintings.
“We see a continuous unforced preference for the relatively uncomplicated men and women of the outback,” Bail writes. “They are observed going about their work or facing the great emptiness. His people are brave, matter-of-fact; so too is Tass. These drawings – it seems to me – are more factual and contain little of the despair found in the paintings.”
This is true, from a certain point in Drysdale’s career. The best of the drawings at the S.H.Ervin are quick, brilliantly observed sketches of characters encountered on the artist’s travels to remote parts of Australia. There are figures such as Old Tom (c. 1966), or Dave (1967). There is an entire subculture of bartenders and shopkeepers, such as Bar room figure (study for Joe) (1950) or The Barman (1950); and sensitive drawings of indigenous people, such as Standing Aboriginal Woman (c. 1961) or Stockman (c.1957).

No artist has given us a more convincing picture of life in the outback, conveyed via an imaginary gallery of discreet portraits. Drysdale does not editorialise or sentimentalise his subjects, he records what he sees and allows the viewer to flesh out these pictures in his or her own mind. It is almost impossible to look at some of them without feeling you already know these people, and can supply a context and a personality.
Yet this is only part of Drysdale’s graphic output. His drawings were not always free from gloom and anxiety. The war-time images, such as the nocturnal groupings of soldiers in Albury in 1942, or the elaborate views of the airport at Rose Bay (1944), convey a powerful sense of foreboding. This may hardly sound unusual at a time when the entire world was feeling the strain, but these drawings are also more style-conscious than those that followed. In his early thirties Drysdale was still finding his feet, and the influence of British artists such as Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland and John Piper is obvious. He is not simply concerned with the war, but with his own direction as an artist, more particularly, as an aspiring Modernist.
At an even earlier period, while studying at the George Bell School in the 1930s, Drysdale had been under the spell of the School of Paris; and briefly, of the itinerant British artist, Ian Fairweather, who caused a sensation among Melbourne’s advanced art circles when he hit town in 1934. Pieces such as Composition (Nudes) and Old Man with a Pipe (both c. 1937) owe a huge debt to Fairweather; just as Figures in a landscape (1936) reflects the idolatry of Cézanne passed on by George Bell.
Many other influences have been identified in those early years, including that of Modigliani, and of Drysdale’s close friend, Peter Purves-Smith (1912-49), who is generally held to have matured faster as an artist. The breakthrough came in 1944 when Drysdale was commissioned by the Sydney Morning Herald to travel through drought-stricken areas of western New South Wales with reporter, Keith Newman. The experience was a life-changing one, with the drawings that resulted laying the foundations for his most famous images.
Even before this date Drysdale had already travelled extensively, seeing works in Paris that many of his peers had only studied in reproduction. His work had been collected by museums, including a painting from a 1941 touring show that was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. He was a successful artist whose talent was widely recognised, but in the drawings of this time it is best seen in minor pieces such as the wonderful, scribbly, Standing Soldier (c. 1942).

It was not until Drysdale painted pictures such as Walls of China and The Drover’s Wife (both 1945), that he staked his claim to be a truly iconic presence in Australian art.
One may chart the gestation of many of Drysdale’s ‘icons’ in a succession of preliminary drawings, some quick and casual, others squared-up for transfer to canvas. It is a shame that several of the studies for The Cricketers (1947) included in the book do not make it into the S.H.Ervin display. This is arguably the greatest, most original painting that Drysdale ever produced, and the drawings, like so many of the sketches he made in the old gold-mining town of Hill End, are alive with the excitement of discovery.
When Drysdale and Donald Friend started exploring Hill End in 1947, they found a piece of Australian history in the throes of ‘pleasing decay’, to use a phrase favoured by the British Neo-Romantic, John Piper. Everywhere they looked there were motifs that spoke of former glories and thwarted aspirations. It appealed to Drysdale’s fascination with the past, reflected in his lifelong reading of histories and biographies. It was also implicitly tragic – a boom-town that had dwindled to the size of a dilapidated hamlet as the gold fever subsided.
After suffering the nightmare of the successive suicides of his son and wife in the years 1962-63, the last two decades of Drysdale’s life would find his work settling into the ‘steadiness’ that Murray Bail identified. His drawings were more relaxed and naturalistic, the creations of a man with nothing left to prove. The paintings, however, became increasingly mannered, losing the dignity and gravity of those pictures of the late 1940s. In this show, two 1960 oils on Aboriginal themes from the collection of the Reserve Bank of Australia, show that the decline was under way long before the double tragedy that destroyed his family.
When one looks at the graph of Drysdale’s career – at his stop-start working patterns; the long, fallow periods when he would avoid going to the studio – one sees how his creativity was influenced by a personal pathology. It was not just the bouts of depression he endured, but the fact that he came from the old Anglo-Australian squattocracy, and never felt the hardships that afflicted so many of his artist friends. For when an artist has to make and sell work merely to survive, it has an impact on one’s personality, and on the art itself. It was Drysdale’s privilege and curse that he never felt that sort of pressure. The pressures under which he worked were largely self-induced, and accordingly all the more crushing. For it is easy enough to do what one needs to do, but a painful business to generate creative urgency by force of will alone.
S.H.Ervin Gallery, February 17 – March 25, 2012

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, March 03, 2012