Russell Drysdale created a new vision of Australia. He painted compassionate images of unheroic women and men in the outback, loving their individuality and their peculiarities. He portrayed a drought-ridden and eroded landscape, that seemed to have existed before time, as well as seemingly haunted towns with quaint buildings framing gaping streets.
In 1944, Drysdale was commissioned by the Sydney Morning Herald to record the drought devastation and associated soil erosion in north-western New South Wales. These drawings and the paintings Drysdale subsequently produced on this theme, present a reality he had seen. Nonetheless, they resulted in controversy, with some writers believing that the images might upset people who worked on the land and devalue land prices, while others maintained that they would increase sympathy for country people and encourage the government to spend more on solving the cause of soil erosion.
Drysdale made a drawing during his drought journey, A drovers’ camp near Deniliquin 1944, that shows the sparse landscape with the drover, his wife and their wagon. Soon after, he painted Thedrover’s wife, depicting the vast, flat and barren landscape with dead trees and a cloudless sky and bringing forward and enlarging the woman, making her monumental. She may have lank hair, wear a drab, unfashionable dress, a nondescript hat and flat lace-up shoes, but she stands assuredly, looking out towards the viewer with her feet planted firmly on the ground. There is a gentleness in her face and eyes. The drover is still present, but set back in the background, with his horses and covered wagon.
Drysdale’s contemporary, the art critic and artist, Paul Haefliger, said that Drysdale ‘conveys a difficult and lonely existence, where man constantly battles against the elements’.1 But is this true? Although his people are often alone, as is the drover’s wife, they rarely seem to be lonely; rather, they appear to be in harmony with themselves and their place. The drover’s wife is not battling against the elements, or anything else. In her own way she is heroic.
Like Tom Roberts, Drysdale carefully structured his pictures, arranging space and volume and using a luminous, old-masterly, approach to his paint. However, unlike those of earlier artists, Drysdale’s people are not pioneers struggling to tame the bush or shearers working up a hard sweat, they are strong men and women who are laconically at home in their environment. Unlike some other artists of 1940s, such as John Perceval and Albert Tucker, whose paintings are expressions of anger and frustration, Drysdale showed people who are calm. They are working people located in what might seem to be an inhospitable environment, but who appear perfectly at ease there, as resilient as the environment demands. He created a new sense of what it feels like to live in Australia. Drysdale observed:
To live for any length of time in the far regions of The Centre, camped in a swag and removed from the compass of society, needs a new adjustment … It is a life that demands a different set of values, a heightened perception which in turn develops a new awareness. What appear at first oddities become almost commonplace through a new interpretation.2
When, in 1949, Drysdale exhibited another image of a large, strong woman in an outback landscape, Woman in a landscape, some viewers considered it to be an insult to Australian womanhood. They thought she was a freak, inelegant, ungainly, of hideous proportions. But although this was never stated, they were probably affronted because Drysdale presented her as having a different sense of values from theirs, as being comfortable in the wide open spaces of the Australian outback.
Drysdale’s paintings have had a pervasive impact on the Australian psyche. The drover’s wife has a specific setting, Deniliquin, in north-west New South Wales and is connected to a particular event, the drought, devastation and soil erosion of 1944. But it is much more than this, it is an allegory of the white Australian people’s relationship with this ancient land.
1Sydney Morning Herald, 23 January 1948, p.2
2 Russel Drysdale, Catalogue of an Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings by Russell Drysdale, Leicester Galleries, London: 1965, p.5.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002