Although he drew drawings from a young age, Russell Drysdale showed little interest in art in school and seemed destined for a future on earth – his parents having acquired pastoral property, Boxwood Park. , in the Riverina district in 1926.
Sir Russell was born in Bognor Regis, Sussex, England in 1912 and came to Australia as a child with his family in 1923.
The Drysdales had family associations with the first Australian settlers and pastors as early as the 1820s. The Russell and Drysdale families settled first in Tasmania, then in the Western District of Victoria, the Riverina and northern Queensland.
Sir Russell entered the art world at the age of 20, while hospitalized in Melbourne for left eye surgery. Several drawings he had made impressed a doctor, Dr Julian Smith, who introduced him to Daryl Lindsay. Through Lindsay, he met the influential art teacher George Bell, who made Drysdale aware of contemporary European art and the possibility of art as a profession.
On a trip to England and Europe the same year, Drysdale experienced modern painting firsthand and returned to Australia with the serious idea of ââgiving up the land for art.
In 1935, he married Elizabeth (Bonny) Stephen, also of Scottish origin, moved to Melbourne and enrolled as a student at Bell Shore School (later George Bell School) where he renewed his friendship with a former classmate. class, the painter Peter Purves. Smith, whose eccentric brand of social commentary and suprealism was later equated with his own style. (Drysdale married Purves Smith’s widow, Maisie, in 1964 after the death of his first wife in 1963.)
While a student at Bell, he worked through various styles associated with the School of Paris. He experimented with cubism in the still lifes of 1938-39, but was particularly drawn to the gentle and mannered simplifications of the figures in the paintings of the Paris school artists Modigliani and Kisling.
In “The Rabbit and His Family”, painted in 1938, he is still very concerned with the decorative motif and a sophisticated naivety derived from the work of the English artist Christopher Wood, but the elongated figures in the painting of “country types” seem to predict the form and subject of future paintings.
The early years of WWII saw an acceleration in the development of Drysdale and the strengthening of its art. It was unacceptable for war service because of the impaired eyesight. In the early 1940s he moved away from the decorative Post-Impressionism of his student years and turned to a type of Australian regionalism.
The new paintings are reminiscent of, but not necessarily influenced by, American regionalists of the 1930s such as Thomas Hart Benton and John Stuart Curry (and some paintings by Alexander Brook). In addition to the elongated figures and the emphasis on the harshness of the terrain, Drysdale and the American regionalists firmly reject their youth apprenticeship at the Ãcole de Paris.
The war years were just the right climate to continue the surrealist movement and it is clear from ‘The Rabbiters’ and The Drover’s Wife’ and other well-known paintings from the period that Drysdale had arrived at a new view of the landscape. Australian – one whose figures are rarely absent – absorbing the surrealist-inspired nature transformations of English artists Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore.
Low horizon lines and deep vistas accentuate the isolation of country life. As Patrick McCaughey wrote, “the paintings and drawings of this period have both the brightness of dreams and the grain of reality.”
Drysdale was a runaway designer who drew continuously throughout his life. There is no doubt that his drawings and sketches are the most cohesive aspect of his art.
As a pupil of George Bell he learned to draw from memory, so that in the most direct and spontaneous sketches the essence of his subject – a gallery of country “figures” is distilled by the contemplation and a remarkable power of recall.
Drysdale’s most powerful images are rooted in commonplace: men as skinny as bare trees burrow and hunt rabbits, children play among household debris, and strong women remain silent and tied to the earth. It is the image of Drysdale that will endure: the strongest image of the Australian outback of its time. Sidney Nolan summed it up. “Drysdale is the most Australian of all of us.”