Russell Drysdale

December 1, 2009

Russell Drysdale
By Lou Klepac

Lou Klepac’s weighty monograph on Russell Drysdale was first issued in 1983, less than two years after the artist’s death in June 1981. I remember reviewing that volume for a student newspaper, regretting that I never had the chance to meet the artist. At that time the book seemed like a landmark in Australian art publishing, both for the thoroughness of its research and the quality – and quantity – of reproductions.

Twenty-six years later, it is one of a number of publications from the Bay Books back catalogue being reissued by Murdoch Books. It follows updated versions of Patrick McCaughey’s Fred Williams, and Murray Bail’s Ian Fairweather, both of which remain indispensible reference works on those artists.

Of the three books, Klepac’s Drysdale has undergone the fewest revisions and alterations. The original edition had 383 pages, the new edition, 384 pages. The earlier edition had 183 plates, the new one has 180, although the apparent reduction is a matter of reclassifying plates and illustrations. The only significant addition to the writing is a two-page preface by the author.

In the original edition the plates were all clustered at the back of the book, now they are integrated within the text. The images are a lot sharper, the typeface more attractive, and the bibliography has been brought up-to-date. The big question is: “If you already own the earlier edition do you need to buy this new one?”

Answer: “Only if you have obsessive bibliophile tendencies.”

If you’ve never possessed a copy of the book there is no reason to hesitate. Russell Drysdale remains one of the most important and distinctive Australian artists of the twentieth century, the creator of iconic pictures such as The Cricketers, The Drover’s Wife and Sofala, which have burned themselves into the national consciousness. Klepac is right to say that Drysdale’s vision owed more to artists such as De Chirico than it did to the landscape traditions of the Heidelberg School, but out of this distant, Eurocentric, intellectual approach, he crafted paintings that have summed up the very essence of this country.

Look, for instance, at The Cricketers (1948)– a lonely backyard contest between bat and ball, set in the ghost town of Hill End. The scene is given an apocalyptic tone by a glowering sky. The bowler’s arm is poised to deliver a ball that will never be delivered. It is a perfect suspension of time and action, a portrayal of life as a game in a world from which God has absented himself. In the past, Drysdale’s paintings seemed to be set in the wake of a nuclear holocaust, nowadays we might think of a planet ravaged by an ecological catastrophe. Either way, the setting is a hot, dry land that has never given an inch to its would-be conquerors.

It is a vision that seems no less relevant today than it did in the 1940s. One feels instinctively that the artist who painted such works had some very dark places within his mind. Klepac hints at these aspects of Drysdale’s personality, without venturing too deeply beneath the surface. We learn that Drysdale was a procrastinator who often had to force himself to work. He was a natural-born draughtsman who drew with ease and fluency, but painting was almost always a painful process. This is apparent in the clumsy, rather laborious nature of some of his later works.

Although Drysdale was the perennial “good bloke” who made friends easily and was at home in any company, he was also subject to what we would now call bouts of depression. At the very height of his success, after his 1961 retrospective at the Art Gallery of NSW, he endured the tragedy of the suicide of his disturbed son, Tim. Sixteen months’ later, his wife, Bon, took the same path, leaving Drysdale to endure with a stoicism that the drover’s wife might have envied.

Klepac passes over these events as quickly as possible, showing a degree of tact that most biographers do not possess. He writes primarily as an art historian, basing his narrative on a study of the work. This entails a detailed overview of Drysdale’s sources and influences, the materials he used, and his attitudes towards his craft. Very occasionally Klepac permits himself a burst of hyperbole. “What a magnificent composition this is!” he gasps in front of the painting, West Wyalong (1949).

Elsewhere he seems less convinced. In relation to a series of works from the late 1950s he writes: “Technically and visually the effect is magnificent but there is little empathy.” This is a coded way of saying that by this stage Drysdale had lost the breathtaking power – that sense of absolute rightness – that animated his paintings of the forties. We should, perhaps, be pleased that Klepac is prepared to acknowledge these shortcomings, however obliquely. Too many artist monographs treat their subjects like superheroes.

Klepac points out that Drysdale’s sympathetic portrayals of the Aborigines played a role in giving a human face to those people of the desert who had been effectively ignored by white society up until that time. This observation was exaggerated in the catalogue of the most recent Drysdale retrospective of 1997, making the artist sound like an activist rather than an old-fashioned paternalist.

It would have been interesting to hear Klepac’s views on this retrospective, which was seriously flawed – primarily by the neglect of the artist’s drawings, which were consistently good, even when he struggled at the easel. Drysdale was diminished by this exhibition when he should have been reaffirmed, but Klepac has chosen to avoid the issue rather than add anything that disturbs the discreet tone of this monograph. If we are to ever see Drysdale in his entirety we must not only read Klepac’s book, we must read between the lines.

Published for The Sydney Morning Herald, December 2009