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Bognor Regis, England 1912 – Westmead, New South Wales, Australia 1981

  • Movements: Australia from 1923
  • England/France 1938-39
  • England 1950-51, 1957 and 1976

Emus in a landscape 1950 paintings, oil on canvas
Technique: oil on canvas
Primary Insc: signed l.r., in brown oil "Russell Drysdale", not dated
101.6 h x 127.0 w
framed (overall) 121.1 h x 146.5 w x 7.4 d cm
Purchased 1970
Accession No: NGA 70.106
© Estate of Russell Drysdale


  • The experience of accompanying journalist Keith Norman to western New South Wales to document the drought significantly changed the way Russell Drysdale looked at the Australian landscape. The photographs and sketches he made on the trip informed his work in the following years. Speaking about the Australian landscape in 1960 Drysdale said: ‘these curious and strange rhythms which one discovers in a vast landscape, the juxtaposition of figures, of objects, all these things are exciting.’

    In Emus in a landscape Drysdale explores the strange and surreal qualities of the Australian outback. The native birds move quietly through the landscape, passing a precariously arranged structure of wood and corrugated iron. This sculptured mass of refuse represents the remains of a previous settlement. It resembles an abandoned dwelling or a shipwreck on a dried inland sea. In Emus in a landscape Drysdale has created a surreal space between reality and imagination, fact and myth, capturing the vast sense of space and the apparent timelessness of the outback.

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
    From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008

  • Description

    This is a painting by Australian artist Russell Drysdale (1912-1981) depicting native birds in an outback landscape of wood and corrugated iron. The painting is shown as an enlargeable image and in two videos. Text onscreen and the collection highlights video gives information about Drysdale’s experience of the Australian landscape as he accompanied journalist Keith Norman to document the effects of drought. The second video presents Ron Radford, the Director of the National Gallery of Australia delivering a talk on the context of Drysdale’s practice and his influences during this period of Australian art. The painting measures 101.6 cm high x 127.0 cm wide and was painted with oil on canvas.

    Educational value

    • This is an excellent resource for the Responding strand in the visual arts curriculum for years 7-8 and 9-10, especially for those content descriptions that refer to considering the broader context of works of art, such as their social, cultural and historical context and role of the artist. The two videos are particularly useful for the context of this work and for Drysdale’s other works at this time. The resource may also be useful for the ‘Water in the world’ unit of study in year 7 geography, particularly in relation to content descriptions about water value, variability and scarcity in Australia and the impacts and responses to an atmospheric hazard such as drought.
    • This resource is of considerable significance for the Sustainability cross-curriculum priority. The scene resembles an abandoned dwelling in a dry landscape. This symbolises what can occur when humans choose ways of living that are not sustainable in the dry climate of interior Australia where droughts are a frequent occurrence.

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010