Sir George Russell Drysdale

The Australian painter Sir George Russell Drysdale (1912-1981) gave his countrymen a changed vision of their continent through his landscape paintings of Australia's rural frontier.

Russell Drysdale was born on Feb. 7, 1912, at Bognor Regis, Sussex, in England. The family moved to Australia, and Russell attended Geelong Grammar School in Victoria. He intended to take up farming but developed a strong interest in art and in 1935 began studying painting in Melbourne, continuing at the Grosvenor School in London and La Grande Chaumière in Paris during 1938-1939.

Returning to Melbourne, Drysdale found a strong resistance to acceptance of the newer art forms. He decided to move to Sydney, where the art world was awakening to European influences, and he immediately found himself at home. In 1941 he traveled through the remoter sections of the hinterland; Man Feeding His Dogs and Moody's Pub capture the region's emptiness.

Painter of the Backcountry

From the early 1940s, when he began interpreting the life of Australia's rural frontier in a new and highly personalized style, Drysdale turned aside from the established Australian school. Australian impressionism had become something of a stereotype, and Sir Arthur Streeton and other landscapists had painted coastal areas and well-grassed pastoral lands accessible to the main cities. Drysdale took for his settings the wide, dry, ocher-hued heartland of the continent, where he sensed the essence of the Australian experience. He used a warm, deeptoned palette to present somber and astringent views of desolate "heartbreak" landscapes typical of the back-country and to show how the emptiness and monotony affected those who made their lives in this environment.

Drysdale created pictorial enigmas that preserve something of the land's mystical quality and of the special response of people to it. As critic James Gleeson pointed out (1969): "Man is not shown by Drysdale as protagonist at grips with ruthless nature; rather he is drawn as a malleable creature upon whom the external forces have imposed the stamp of their authority."

Drysdale's first exhibition, in Sydney in 1942, established him as the leading exponent of a new kind of national painting. The dramatic interpretations of a rigorous and monotonous environment are compelling, evocative, and clearly Australian; yet for all their starkness the paintings reveal Drysdale's respect for the basic subtleties of classical art and his discerning awareness of the European tradition in all its richness.

Drysdale captured wartime themes in Albury Platform and Home Town (both 1942). In 1944 he did a striking series of illustrations showing soil erosion in the western region of New South Wales; published in leading newspapers, the drawings brought home the awful reality of one of the nation's severest droughts. The Drover's Wife (1945) and the Cricketers (1948) are examples of the artist's ability to place human subjects in vast settings without negating them. Old Larsen (1953) is an outstanding example of his character portraiture.

Prizes and Exhibitions

In 1947 Drysdale won the Wynne Prize, Australia's principal landscape award. He was selected for the Twelve Australian Artists Exhibition sponsored by the Arts Council of Great Britain (1953) and for the Venice Biennale (1954).

In 1959 Drysdale did a series of drawings to illustrate newspaper articles by A. S. Marshall on the continent's northwest frontier lands; subsequently these appeared in Marshall's Journey among Men (1962). Following this series, Drysdale painted aborigines of the tropical regions, showing them as symbolic figures sometimes barely distinguishable from the totems, trees, and rocks of their tribal land.

A retrospective exhibition of Drysdale's paintings was held in Sydney in 1960. He was knighted in 1969 and became a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1980. He died in 1981. After his death, three books were written about him and his work. Klepac, Lou, The Life and Works of Russell Drysdale, Bay Books, Sydney, 1983; Boddington, Jennie, Drysdale Photographer, NGV, Melbourne, 1987; and Catalano, Gary, An Intimate Australian: The landscape and recent Australian art, Hale & Ironmonger, Sydney, 1985.

Further Reading on Sir George Russell Drysdale

A useful reference is the publication by the National Art Gallery of South Wales, Sydney, Russell Drysdale: A Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings from 1937 to 1960; Drysdale's views on the artist's role are included. Drysdale is discussed in relation to Australian art in Bernard Smith, Australian Painting, 1788-1960 (1962). Drysdale's outlook and his place in the contemporary art scene are explored in James Gleeson's elaborately illustrated review Masterpieces of Australian Art (1969). Many of his works are featured on the Internet at The National Gallery of Victoria homepage, which can be accessed http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/landscape/drysdale.html.

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