The 110-year-old Castlemaine Art Museum is today under threat of closure due to a budgetary drought. Its Russell Drysdale painting Desolation is apposite to this situation, and a reminder of the enduring value to its local community of this unique institution. In the year Desolation was painted Castlemaine acquired the artwork for 200 guineas, equivalent to a value now of $15,000 (a tenth of the gallery’s current annual running costs).
The purchase was immediately announced in a March 1946 article, “Fine Example In Country Art Purchase,” by Clive Turnbull in his capacity as The Herald newspaper art critic and writer on Australian painters, notably in a book he was finishing, Art Here, from Buvelot to Nolan (1947) and others on which he was then working; The Art of Rupert Bunny (published, 1948) and Australian painting : colonial, impressionist, contemporary (1962).
In a section of the latter on the ‘Sydney School of Painting,’ he was to name Drysdale (1912–1981), who previously trained in Melbourne with George Bell and had returned there from Europe with the onset of WW2, as one of a ‘holy trinity’ of Australian artists with William Dobell and Donald Friend;
“Drysdale … is as much a stylist and as much a romantic as any of his Sydney colleagues. Unlike them he is passionately concerned with Australian subject matter; and there can be little question today that the discovery and definition of Australia will be a most fruitful and necessary artistic activity for a long time to come.”
Turnbull’s newspaper article emphasises that a mere 6,000 people lived in Castlemaine—in 1947 a mere 2.4% of Melbourne’s population—but;
“its progressive interest in artistic matters is … an example for Melbourne,” having had “an art gallery for years, a pleasant building with a good nucleus of Australian pictures, old and new, and now…launching out, and very wisely buying contemporary work while it is available, at a price within the gallery’s range,…showing…the gallery’s…enterprise and the courage of its convictions in buying what ranks as a “modern” work.”
The purchase was made only months after WW2’s devastating drought depicted in Desolation which ended in a positive economic context of a Labor government described by Prime Minister Chifley as “the light on the hill – which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind.”
As Turnbull describes it, in Desolation, unlike a number of “popular third, rate painters…Drysdale, like all true artists, is sensitive to the vast changes about him…both the war and the things which are happening to his own country in the eroded areas have affected his work. He is making a steady progress toward the most significant interpretation of this country in paint that we have known.” That interpretation was achieved during extensive journeys he made into the ‘Outback,’ and through his little-known photography which infuses his painting.
During the War, in 1943, the National Gallery of Victoria’s conservative director Daryl Lindsay (who saw Drysdale’s early drawings and sent him to George Bell), had purchased Tom Roberts‘ The artists’ camp, painted in still untouched bushland during the summer of 1885–86 near Gardiner’s Creek, accessible from Melbourne via the recently opened Box Hill railway station. Plein air painters Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin and Louis Abrahams were joined at various times other artists, including Arthur Streeton, Charles Conder, Jane Sutherland, Tom Humphrey, John Llewellyn Jones and John Mather who by 1889 established other camps further north along the Yarra at Heidelberg, from which is taken the name for the school of Australian impressionists.
Seventy years later Drysdale camped in the Glen Helen Gorge 130km west of Alice Springs in the centre of the continent. The scene is in stark contrast to the damp green scrub of Box Hill in which artists could paint as if it were the French forest of Fontainebleau. Australian art had also moved on and a new vision was needed. Already Basil Burdett, reviewing Drysdale’s first solo at Riddell Galleries in Little Collins Street, had expressed “natural relief at finding a young man who does not imitate Streeton,” and though he felt Drysdale had not yet found his own style, he admired his adventurousness and courage in experiment.
A review of the 1960 book Russell Drysdale : a retrospective exhibition of paintings from 1937 to 1960 by ‘Scrutarius’ (the pen-name of Peter Fenton) in Walkabout opens;
“Someone has written that Russell Drysdale forces us to see what we don’t want to see in the outback…you are compelled to admit the strength of his desolate and desiccated townships of his gehenna-like landscapes that some macabre ballet of debbil-debbils might, you feel, seize on as backdrops, and of his brassy stillness of heat.”
Scrutarius concludes that the introduction written by artist and Sydney Morning Herald critic, Paul Haefliger, “attempts to explain [the paintings] and even to turn Drysdale into a sort of intellectual romanticist.” Haefliger (left) was photographed reading in his studio by Drysdale who visited him and his wife Jean Bellette; the journalist’s newspaper acts as a reflector of warm afternoon sunshine to emphasise a sense of his private, relaxed absorption.
There lies a difference between Drysdale and other artists of his period; far from being a “intellectual romantic” he was a down-to-earth ‘man’s man’ who after leaving school, where he excelled in sport, had worked for his grandfather at Pioneer Sugar Mills Ltd. near Townsville, and in 1934 had also attempted a career as overseer on the family farm at Boxwood Park in southern New South Wales before reconfirming his commitment to art.
Then, from 1940 to 1967 he embarked on a series of expeditions by car throughout Australia; the first a 3-week 5000km tour, in 1944 at the height of WW2, of wind-eroded drought-striken areas of NSW on commission from The Sydney Morning Herald. The articles, variously headed “The country in which there are no Bushfires. There is nothing to burn;” “Worst Drought in Australia’s History;” and “An Artist’s Journey Into Australia’s Lost World,” written by Keith Newman, generously illustrated with drawings by Drysdale, were run on subsequent days 16-19 December 1944. An inset declared that;
“Drysdale has qualities which peculiarly fit him to portray the drama or man’s struggle with natural forces. A member of a pastoral family he reinforces artistic insight with first hand knowledge of the problems of the land.”
Drysdale’s experience of the land, more embedded and extensive than that of most city-bound Australian artists, lends an expressive force to his drawing that reveals a profound empathy with his subject. Never interested in ethereal abstraction of his ideas, he is an artist of the figure in the landscape, whether that figure be a person, or animal, plant or object.
The drawing above, one of several studies made for Desolation, demonstrates that in its comprehension of the straining life-force fossilised in roots bared by the sand-laden hot winds of drought, is an understanding that dates back to, and expands on, his sketch (below) made for the Herald and captioned by a sub-editor who was clearly affected by it; “Talons of the desert grope in miles of drifting sand.”
The artist and his young family also lived on a property in Albury on the Murray before moving to Sydney, and in 1956 he made a trip with son Tim to Pioneer near Townsville then flew to Cape York Peninsula and Coen for a side trip before resuming the journey in their Dodge in July, crossing Queensland and the Northern Territory, Mt Isa, Camooweal, to Alice Springs region, Glen Helen Gorge, Darwin – their first real experience of the ‘Outback’ and the ‘Red Centre.’ That was followed with a more extensive expedition undertaken by Drysdale and his troubled son Tim and scientists in 1958, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, to sample effects of radioactive fallout from British tests on sexual cycles in fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals in different parts of Australia.
On the expedition undertaken with ornithologist Dom Serventy, ornithologist and taxidermist Kenneth Buller, and farmer and naturalist Ivan Carnaby, Serventy kept a diary. His Wednesday, 8th October 1958 entry reads;
“Stopped at Margaret R. crossing to examine bower of Great Bower-bird, reported to us by Mrs. A. E. Pearce, wife of the Main Roads Board foreman. The bower in use has its axis along a bearing of 243. A disused bower close by has a bearing of 293. A third disused bower was too dilapidated to measure. 766-back at the bower at the Margaret R. crossing, 11.15am. – 12.45pm. Red-collared Lorikeets, several lots. Rainbow-birds, Brown Honeyeaters, Banded Honeyeaters.”
Drysdale’s visual record of these observations being made is both photographed and later drawn.
That scientists found his art a useful form of documentation and used them to illustrate articles for The Observer, as well as Marshall’s book Journey Among Men (1962), is further evidence of Drysdale’s distance from Albert Tucker‘s mythologising Explorer series, or Sidney Nolan‘s Ned Kelly. However, as Jennie Boddington wrote in Drysdale Photographer (1987), Australians’ reactions to Drysdale’s ‘new vision’ became jaded as the nation’s outlook in the 1960s became ever more international:
“Fly-spotted and faded reproductions in bank, pub, garage and waiting rooms across the country are no longer Drysdales: they have become something else. These all too familiar works, The Cricketers, The Drover’s Wife, Moody’s Pub have receded from consciousness; they are not seen. For this dubious popularity their creator is despised by the academics of the moment, but time will forgive him as it has Streeton, Roberts and McCubbin, who were once reacted against in the same way.
Whether Rosemary Laing refers to Drysdale’s photography in her Burning Ayer series, or specifically to classic tourist photographs of Uluru, it represents a still current aporia and ambivalence in attitudes to Australian landscape through which most white populations might only drive, ignorant, or ignoring, of its ancient inhabitation.
Such attitudes are made vivid in Laing’s ironic pyres of red Ikea furniture in the face of Drysdale’s 1958 picture of rock-art bearing boulder outcrops now within the Woodstock–Abydos Rock Art reserve, near Marble Bar in northern Western Australia, engraved with some of one million other such images within the surrounding 300 kilometres. Through the reserve a rail-line has been constructed, while 300 km away a gas-processing plant appears amidst other ancient and spectacular petroglyphs on Burrup Peninsula.
It was Boddington, first curator of photography in a public gallery in Australia, who revealed Drysdale the photographer. Even those who knew him well didn’t know he took photographs, or regarded this activity as unimportant, not part of his art-making. In her preface Boddington recounts her discovery;
“In 1982 I was reading Mary Eagle and Jan Minchin‘s book The George Bell School and was astonished to see reproduced some photographs of singular interest by Drysdale, the painter. I had no idea he took photographs. These pictures aroused the collector’s lust and I wrote to Lady Drysdale to see if any might be available for the collection. Her gracious reply was swift; she invited me to inspect the material. Accordingly, in a few months the National Gallery of Victoria received the wonderful gift of all of Sir Russell Drysdale’s photographs, a gift of such magnificence that it changed the character of the collection in one fell swoop.”
As the child of a well-to-do family he was given a camera, likely a Kodak 120 format producing negatives of 6.5 x 11.0 cm, and in 1939 he swapped that for a square-format Rolleicord. His output was fairly indiscriminate and included family snaps, though of a more professional standard than the average, and visual notes that inspired is art-making.
Born a year after Max Dupain, who photographed him in 1945 going though his canvases, Drysdale was a modernist photographer himself, in the sense of being a ‘straight shooter,’ more interested in the documentary attributes of the photograph and in how the camera approximated human perception in an often experimental way.
It was colour, in the form of Kodachrome, the colour reversal film introduced in 1935 and available for popular use in 1955, which Drysdale quickly adopted, along with an early 35mm single-lens reflex Pentacon camera from East Germany in which to use it, as the most sympathetic medium.
Kodachrome was slower than the available B&W at 12 ISO (64 ISO, after 1962), and unforgiving in terms of the exactness of exposure required (overexposure produced offensively washed-out results), with a dynamic range claimed to be about 8-11 stops—more contrasty than current digital which has a superior range of nearly 14 stops. It was processed by Kodak and returned in mounts, so framing and cropping was done in-camera.
Only rarely are Drysdale’s paintings direct copies of the photographs (as in the drawing Marshall setting up camera, Margaret River, above) but so often they bear their stamp, and after his adoption of colour, their hues particularly, which become more saturated— compare the 1946 Country Woman with Ceremony of 1962 above. Drysdale is unafraid to exploit the dense blacks of the transparency film for graphic effect in his ongoing investigations of human gesture and posture in the figure in the landscape.
Tracey Moffat, asked in 1998 by Art and Australia to write about Drysdale’s 1956 Boulder City, taken 4 years before she was born, protests that; “I can’t write, I can’t write. I’m only a visual artist, I can’t put words together. But the awful, wonderful photograph keeps coming back and I must pay tribute to it. I have to sing about it so that perhaps others will look at the picture and come to love it the way I do.” And sing she does, inserting herself into the image along the…
“…mad, weaving skid tracks, probably left by 1950s fun-seeking teenagers in cars. I think of teenagers in cars because to the right of the photograph, just exiting the frame, is a great-looking 1950s Holden – the Australian car. The Holden is gunning along the dirt road, kicking up a wonderful dust show. That’s what you do when you’re young and driving in the outback along remote dirt roads. Especially if you’re from the city. When there are no speed restrictions you get excited and gun your car. You put your foot on the accelerator and you flog it. You don’t care if you kill the car. Who cares if you break down further up the road? That’s further up, not here.”
Then she, who was about to show solo at DIA Center for the Arts, New York, backs away;
“This must be why I like the Drysdale photograph. It depicts a scene that I never want to enter. If I saw the hotel in real life, I wouldn’t stop to go in it. I’d rush on past into my wonderful future because I like to think that I’m better, better than the hotel, better than the whole godforsaken scene. Better, better, better … that’s right, better.”
Drysdale was one-eyed. After suffering a detached retina as a teenager, and encouraged into art by the surgeon cum Pictorialist Julian Smith, he made a natural photographer. Lacking stereo vision he never had to deal with that adaption of three dimensions into two that the novice of the pre-digital era had to make; taking their first picture to be surprised to find a background telephone pole inserted into their subject’s skull. In Boddington’s book, painter and photographer Hal Missingham confirms;
“Your remark about the monocular vision is most interesting. I believe it could be a distinct advantage to a photographer! He has one eye and the camera the same Cyclopean view. In any case you use only one eye when looking [in] the SLR view finder! I have often remarked the lack of aerial perspective in [Drysdale’s] paintings, the effect of distance being obtained by a sudden diminution of scale from front to back —like a wide angle lens!’
Point-of-view in Drysdale’s photographs is as important, then, as colour. He orients us in Boulder City so that we interpret its location as Moffatt does. Another view, taken 50 years before and from 30 degrees the right, shows the Westralia Hotel not before a flat lonely horizon, but with a large mound looming over it, on which, for scale, perches a double-exposed single figure. It is one of the artificial mountains of tailings built of waste dug from beneath the ground where there were more than 3,000km of gold workings. The hotel, still in operation when Drysdale photographed it, and its surrounding town Kamballie, were swallowed up in the 1980s by Kalgoorlie Consolidated Gold Mines’ Fimiston Open Pit, now known as the Super Pit.
Boddington’s book, published by the National Gallery of Victoria is still available second-hand, and though it is somewhat a hagiography, and presents the colour illustrations not in chronological order, it is well-researched and worth reading in relation to our question about photography’s capacity to adapt to, or to convey, individual style. In Drysdale’s case that is evidently a two-way interaction.
If you are as distressed as I am to hear of Castlemaine Art Museum being under threat of closure, head over to their site to learn how you might help it survive until a more continuous source of funding is secured.