Regarded as the pioneer of Australian modern regional painting Russell Drysdale is one of Australia’s most celebrated artists. Breaking radically with the Heidelberg School’s romanticized view of rural Australia Drysdale used the originality of his artistic style and vision to effectively shape an alternative national identity based on his own honest depictions of the harsh nature and distinctiveness of life within the Australian inland.
Born in England in 1912, Drysdale arrived in Australia in 1923 where he was brought up on the land until he was old enough to receive a solid education in the arts both in Australia and abroad. Between the years 1935- 1939 he studied at the Grosvenor School in London, the Grand Chaumiere, Paris and the George Bell School in Melbourne. It was during this time that the artist developed an interest in post-impressionist painting and became particularly familiar with the modernist styles of Modigliani, Picasso and Matisse.
Following his prestigious education Drysdale used his art to detail his own emotional response to the Second World War. As defective eyesight exempted him from active service he used his craft to enter the wartime atmosphere by recording scenes of homefront activities. Influenced by such British painters as Sutherland, Piper and Moore he demonstrated an interest in conveying the movement of troops, fire devastated ruins, aeroplane hangars and many other scenes that helped to typify wartime Australia. Donated by Drysdale himself, the Australian war memorial today holds 17 of these works, many of them encapsulating the image of the patiently waiting soldier.
While Drysdale’s wartime images received national acclaim leading him to being recognized as a significant emerging talent he had yet to find his own personal vision. In 1940 when the artist made the move from Melbourne to Albury and then Sydney this became a time that was crucial in the discovery of his life-long subject matter and vision. Witnessing desolate landscapes accompanied with sparse figures and menacing skies Drysdale used his figurative expressionist art to convey the severe isolations and sheer hardships felt by those people living off the land and in doing so, he redefined the way Australians saw their own country.
The work entitled, Sunny Evening (1941) is important in showing the development of Drysdale’s unique vision and style. Purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1942, it was the first gallery to have purchased any of Drysdale’s works. Invited by the Sydney Morning Herald in 1944 to travel through drought-affected areas of New South Wales Drysdale’s fascination for the people and settings of the harsh rural land of Australia was strengthened greatly. The artist once said, “subjects in the country, figures and landscape… for me it has tremendous appeal, it is continually exciting, these curious and strange rhythms which one discovers in a vast landscape, the juxtaposition of figures, of objects, all these things are exciting.” Continuing to record his impressions throughout his travels he depicted derelict mining towns, the drought-ravaged areas of New South Wales and the people and happenings within the remote villages of Central and Western Australia. It was during this time that Drysdale painted his famous image The Drover’s Wife (1945) which today holds iconic value for the way it portrays the hardships felt by women in remote Australia.
Using materials such as crayons, oil paints and coloured inks in shades of red, yellow, brown, black, grey and white Drysdale obtained a dramatic sharpness of colour in his work that was strongly expressive of the times. Showing austere, barren landscapes and gaunt figures going about their painstaking business on the land the artist won national and international fame and became known as the individual to have initiated an original tradition in Australian art that was not an extension of the art of Britain.
For way he had established a unique artistic vision and style the art of Russell Drysdale was a critical success and he was named as one of leading modernists of the time along with the likes of William Dobell and Donald Friend. His work was shown in a number of highly impressive local and international exhibitions including the Venice Biennale in 1954.
Drysdale won the prestigious Wynne Prize for landscape in 1947 for his painting of the derelict town of Sofala and in 1950 he was invited by Sir Kenneth Clark to hold an exhibition at London’s Leicester Galleries. This became a significant landmark in the history of Australian art for his work proved that Australian artists were capable of having a vision of their own that was not a provincial sub-species of British art but instead quintessentially Australia.
Proving his greatly significant contribution to the Australian art world, Drysdale was appointed Trustee of the Gallery of New South Wales in 1963 and knighted for his services in 1969. He died in Sydney in 1981 having only shown 15 solo exhibitions during his four decades of practicing art. To many, this serves to highlight Drysdale’s slow working process to which he was proven to be an artistic perfectionist.