Russell Drysdale, Australian Icon – TarraWarra Museum of Art

Russell Drysdale Evening c. 1945 oil on canvas, 50 x 60.5 cm Private collection © Estate of Russell Drysdale courtesy TarraWarra Museum of Art

Russell Drysdale’s paintings are part of Australia’s DNA.

Life away from major cities, never easy, the beauty, isolation and suffering of a country and its inhabitants beset by drought, fire and flood was captured by Drysdale in a collection of landscapes that ravish the eye with colour, form  and figures so typical of outback Australia they could never have been painted by anyone or indeed, anywhere else.

It is then, wonderful to report that this iconic artist, Sir Russell Drysdale AC, (1912 -1981) works are the subject of an exhibition currently being presented by TarraWarra Museum of Art (TWMA). The exhibition: Russell Drysdale: Defining the Modern Australian Landscape, runs until the 9th February 2014.

Art historian and critic Dr Christopher Heathcote, an acknowledged authority on Drysdale’s work is the exhibition’s curator.

Russell Drysdale Murphy’s 1947 oil on canvas, 39.3 x 49.2 cm TarraWarra Museum of Art collection Gift of Eva Besen AO and Marc Besen AO Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program 2008 © Estate of Russell Drysdale

Several years of work going into the creation of this collection, Dr. Heathcote, with support from Lynne Clark, daughter of Russell Drysdale, has brought to TarraWarra a significant and involving retrospective of an artist whose work has and will continue to characterise and shape the depiction of Australian landscapes.

A must see exhibition, a vote of thanks goes to Christopher Heathcote, Lynne Clark and the team at TarraWarra for the rare opportunity to assess and view a comprehensive display of  Drysdale’s work.

The collection contains a number of paintings which have not previously been seen in public before along with iconic paintings; Drysdale’s popular images often reprinted it is such a buzz to be able to stand and view the original.

Over 35 paintings from private collections and major public collections including the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Carrick Hill Trust, National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Victoria, Queensland Art Gallery and TarraWarra Museum of Art’s own collection are shown alongside a selection of Drysdale’s drawings and almost 100 of the artist’s own photos of the Australian landscape and figures in the landscape.

Russell Drysdale Saddling up at the Coen Races 1953 oil on canvas, 70.8 x 91.4 cm TarraWarra Museum of Art collection Gift of Eva Besen AO and Marc Besen AO 2001 © Estate of Russell Drysdale courtesy TarraWarra Museum of Art

The paintings and photographs selected for the exhibition were drawn from Drysdale’s many journeys into the Australian interior and often show his deep concern for Aboriginal peoples and his distress at their loss of cultural identity.

Drysdale was born in Sussex, England in 1912 and came to Australia at the age of the age of 11. After working in country Victoria as a jackaroo a chance encounter in 1932 with artist Daryl Lindsay led him to study as an artist. Over the next five decades he went on to establish a reputation as one of Australia’s most important artists whose works grew to define the Australian outback landscape within the national consciousness.

Russell Drysdale The rabbiters 1947 oil on canvas, 76.6 x 102.5 cm National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased, 1947 © Estate of Russell Drysdale courtesy TarraWarra Museum of Art

In November 1944, Drysdale was commissioned by several newspapers to illustrate articles about drought stricken Western New South Wales.

Travelling with journalist, Keith Newman he was shocked by the damage caused by poor land management; the trip sparked a lifelong interest in conservation.

His drawings and water colours were featured in 4 articles published by the Sydney Morning Herald. Despite surrealist overtones, the images proved popular with the public. Encouraged by the interest his illustrations attracted, Drysdale worked up his drawings and studies into a series of modernist landscapes.

The above background on Drysdale was summarised from exhibition notes, prints of the newspaper articles mentioned are on display and reading them gives an insight into both the artist and the motivation behind the art

Russell Drysdale Crucifixion 1946 oil on plywood, 76 x 101.6 cm Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney Gift in memory of Hugh Alexander McClure Smith C.V.O. by his wife and daughter 1963 © Estate of Russell Drysdale courtesy Tarrawarra Museum of Art

Greatly affected by the treatment of World War II concentration camp inmates and the return of Australian troops from Japanese POW camps, Drysdale, in the aftermath of the war, created two paintings, Desolation (1945) and Crucifixion (1946). These masterful depictions of the horror and destruction of war are visually harrowing and evoke feelings of great sadness.

The destruction of Australia’s environment a continuing theme in Drysdale’s paintings, TWMA Director Victoria Lynn says “Drysdale’s works raise many questions to do with how we live in a landscape as harsh as the drought-stricken environment of Australia. They powerfully convey his abiding fascination with the resilience of people and their connection to land”.

Lynn’s comment is particularly relevant to Road With Rocks (1949). Perfectly executed in form and colour; the natural terrain, evocative of images of The Red Planet, Mars, a figure has been positioned in the harsh alien landscape. Viewing it is: in light of the recent NSW’s bushfires an intense and thought provoking experience.

Russell Drysdale The cricketers 1948 oil on composition board 76.2 x 101.5 cm Private collection © Estate of Russell Drysdale courtesy TarraWarra Museum of Art

There are so many visual gems in this large collection of Drysdale’s work  – Evening (1945): a woman alone on the verandah of a dwelling oppressed by the remoteness of the outback landscape,  The Cricketers (1948) innovative at the time of its creation it remains today a representation of Australian national identity, Saddling up at the Coen Races (1953), Mullaloonah Tank (1953), The boresinker and his daughter (1964) all contain aboriginal people, the vivid pigments of dress emphasizing dark skin tones and the hopeless resignation of expressions and stance.

Russell Drysdale Broken Mountain 1950 oil on canvas 66.2 x 102 cm National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Presented through The Art Foundation of Victoria by the National Australia Bank Limited, Honorary Life Benefactor, 1990 © Estate of Russell Drysdale courtesy TarraWarra Museum of Art

But wait there’s more… and there is; much more, but if you can’t make it to the exhibition.

The new Wakefield Press publication Russell Drysdale: Defining the Modern Australian Landscape, written by Dr Christopher Heathcote, in which he aims to explore Drysdale’s distinctively modern approach to landscape imagery and demonstrate his connections with developments in international art from 1940 onwards, has been launched with the exhibition (see The Circle profile).

Russell Drysdale The crow trap 1941 oil on fibro-cement panel, 38.7 x 59 cm Newcastle Art Gallery collection, New South Wales Gift of Dr Roland Pope, 1945 © Estate of Russell Drysdale courtesy TarraWarra Museum of Art

A bonus to attending TarraWarra Museum of Art’s Drysdale exhibition is the opportunity to see the Future Memorials installation, the first phase of an ambitious multi-faceted project involving the Sydney-based Wiradjuri-Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones, Melbourne-based non-Aboriginal artist Tom Nicholson and Senior Wurundjeri elder Aunty Joy Wandin Murphy AO.

Taking its cue from the proximity of TWMA to the site of Coranderrk Aboriginal Station (located along the Yarra River a few kilometres upstream from the Museum), Future Memorials explores the effects of colonialism and seeks new ways to understand and renew the relationship between these histories and the present.

TarraWarra Museum of Art is Australia’s first significant privately funded public art museum. It is located at Healesville, amidst the gently rolling hills of the Yarra Valley. The building is a stunning evocation of modernity.

Russell Drysdale Mullaloonah tank 1953 oil on canvas 123 x 183.4 cm Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide South Australian Government Grant 1953 © Estate of Russell Drysdale

After viewing Defining the Modern Australian Landscape there is nothing nicer to do than sit in the on-site restaurant-bar, sipping a glass of the local grape contemplating the remarkable artistic works created by Russell Drysdale, an artist whose work both informs and enriches Australia and Australians.

Janet Walker, Special Features Victoria, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013


Russell Drysdale: Defining the Modern Australian Landscape

Tarrawarra Museum of Art
311 Healesville – Yarra Glen Road
Healesville, Victoria

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About the Author of the Catalogue

Christopher Heathcote, one of Australia’s leading art critics, has written on a broad range of creators from Sidney Nolan and Edvard Munch to Virginia Woolf and Ingmar Bergman. An authority in twentieth-century Australian culture, he is the author of several books including A Quiet Revolution: The rise of Australian art 1946-68 and A Quest for Enlightenment: The art of Roger Kemp. Dr Heathcote is a regular contributor to Quadrant magazine and Art Monthly Australia.

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