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50 Treasures: Figures in a Landscape by Sir Russell Drysdale

Our thirty-fifth treasure is from an Australian artist who became celebrated for his evocative and stark depictions of outback life. From the James Cook University Art Collection comes Figures in a Landscape by Sir Russell Drysdale.

Professor Stephen Naylor answers the question "why is this significant?" 

James Cook University is delighted to hold a significant work by the late Sir Russell Drysdale AC within its art collection, donated by Ms Elaine Petherbridge. The lithograph, Figures in a Landscape, 1964 captures three Indigenous figures standing within the Australian outback. Drysdale’s experience in regional Australia reinforced an ambivalence, or at least detachment between Europeans and the Australian landscape. However, he was one of the early artists to recognise the strong connectivity between the land and the Australian Aborigine, perhaps anticipating a more empathetic response to the prevailing belief in the mid-20th century that the Aborigine was destined to die out and that Europeans would eventually become one with the Australian landscape.

Russell Drysdale, Figures in a Landscape, 1964, lithograph, 56 x 76 cm. James Cook University Art Collection. ©Estate of Russell Drysdale. Reproduced with permission. Photograph by Michael Marzik.
Russell Drysdale was born in Sussex in 1912, migrating to Australia in 1923. His family were substantial pastoralists, with Drysdale spending time in the Western District of Victoria, the Riverina and some time in north Queensland working within the sugar industry. His grounding on the land and his education at Geelong Grammar saw him develop his interest in art, eventually becoming committed to a career as a painter after studying at the School of Paris and then later at the Bell-Shore School in the mid-1930s. While his training was largely based in the European Modernist tradition, Drysdale gravitated towards exploring the figure in the landscape with a deliberate focus on social representation and a way of commenting on life in the Australian outback. Drysdale was successful in gaining national exposure throughout the 1940s and even represented Australia at the Venice Biennale in 1954, becoming renowned for his economic painting style revealing solemn rural streetscapes and elongated figures, struggling in a landscape that alienated the European.

Drysdale in his studio painting Man and Woman 1960. From Klepac, L. (2009). Russell Drysdale. Millers Point, Australia: Murdoch Books. Page 298. Shaw Collection of Australian Art and Culture.
For Drysdale, the Australian landscape was part of his livelihood, but also a continual challenge, both from an economic and philosophical position. He was enthralled by the harshness of the landscape—its dissolute, drought affected interior—which the white man endured, as opposed to traditional landscape painting where humans dominated lush pastoral scenes or the romanticised notion of the heroic flora Australis was represented by the early Romantics and the Heidelberg School.

The Drover's Wife 1945. In 1944, Drysdale accepted a commission from the Sydney Morning Herald to record the drought devastation and associated soil erosion in western New South Wales. This painting was one produced on that trip and is possibly his most recognisable work. From Klepac, L. (1983). The life and work of Russell Drysdale. Sydney, Australia: Bay Books. Page 258. Shaw Collection of Australian Art and Culture.
In Figures in a Landscape, 1964 Drysdale explores space and presence, the figures both float and blend into the subtle textual effects of the craggy foreground, sparse mid-ground and whispering horizon gently capturing the distance acknowledging the past and anticipating a future. The older male Aboriginal figure to the right looks back at the audience, slightly forlorn but certainly resolute and at one with this fragile land. As in the great evocations of social presence found in the works of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, both the hands and the countenance are prefigured, all else is but a mere smear of line and tone. Those hands and that head carry the history of this Indigenous man, to work with the land in order to survive, feed his family and maintain his connection with the spirit of those who have come before. To the left, the mother and child look pensive, contemplating the future, with the young child’s eyes slightly raised, again questioning the audience on what plight might be ahead for this Indigenous family.

Landscape with Figures c. 1972. From Klepac, L. (1983). The life and work of Russell Drysdale. Sydney, Australia: Bay Books. Page 360. Shaw Collection of Australian Art and Culture.
It was Drysdale who made a concerted effort to bring the Australian Aborigine from the periphery to be a central motif within the artistic Australian landscape. For much of Australian history, the Aborigine was either seen as idealistic ‘Noble Savage’ or the degraded individual without a future, often characterised as ‘Other’. There is also a sense of tragedy within Drysdale’s works, not the nostalgic view of the fallen hero as in the case of the European in the Australian outback, but rather the figure not quite fitting in, although being respectful in a harsh landscape. However, when painting the Indigenous figure, a sense of affinity and belonging is the basis of the portrayal, of being at one with the land. Drysdale saw a peculiar dignity and grace within the Aboriginal people, one where they were both alone and at ease despite their dispossession and despoliation.

The Gatekeeper's Wife 1965. A study of the white Australian in the Australian landscape. From Klepac, L. (1983). The life and work of Russell Drysdale. Sydney, Australia: Bay Books. Page 344. Shaw Collection of Australian Art and Culture.
Figures in a Landscape was done the same year as The Gatekeeper’s Wife, a more complex study of the white Australian in a landscape introducing a kind of female matriarch, stoic and resolute but not an individual, rather an archetype (Read, 1998). Drysdale was attempting to create a type of hybridity between the ‘white blackfellow’ that characterised mid twentieth-century Australian national identity, … emblematic of the so-called ‘Australian-type’ (Maclean, 1998) but in effect he was acknowledging that more than 40,000 years of habitation in Australia’s harsh conditions was predicated on an understanding of this fragile Australian landscape. This landscape was not to be derided for its antithesis to the landscapes of the northern hemisphere, but rather to be celebrated as a place where Europeans could learn from the Indigenous custodians not just about the physicality of the land but of its philosophy and spirit.

A selection of books written about Sir Russell Drysdale from the Shaw Collection of Australian Art and Culture.
Over the course of 2020, JCU Library's Special Collections will be unveiling 50 Treasures from the collections to celebrate 50 years of James Cook University. 

References

Maclean, I. (1998). Aboriginalism: White Aborigines and Australian Nationalism. Australian Humanities Review (10).

Read, R. (1998). Aboriginal Absence, Renaissance Presence and Anglo-Australian Relations in Russell Drysdale's The Gatekeeper's Wife. Australian Journal of Art, 14(1), 114-150.

Author Biography 
Professor Stephen Naylor is the Chair of the JCU Academic Board and has been an active participant in education, learning & teaching and the creative arts for 40 years. His creative arts background drove his professional practice for more than 20 years and has seen him as an active arts reviewer for a variety of Australian journals. More recently, his research has focused upon design and the understanding of a sense of place within the tropical region. He is currently preparing for a new Routledge monograph entitled The Venice Biennale and the Asia-Pacific in the Global Art World, due June 2020.

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