Characterising the Landscape

Russell Drysdale at TarraWarra Museum of Art

In contemporary commentary, it is nigh on impossible to encounter the name Russell Drysdale without also reading some variation on the phrase “iconic vision of Australia”. In his painting The Cricketers (1948), Drysdale composed a scene that has, thus far, resisted sixty years of social transformation to remain an exemplary representation of post-settlement national identity in Australia. Yet this contemporary perspective of a historic work of art, while revealing its significance in the present, can function to cloud our vision of its value as something indelibly new in the past. Through survey exhibitions like the one opening this month at TarraWarra Museum of Art – entitled Russell Drysdale: Defining the Modern Australian Landscape – the viewer is able to regain some of this past perspective and consider how such iconic images came into being. Victoria Lynn, director at TarraWarra Museum of Art, notes that this exhibition has “been in the planning for many years”, predating her own role at the helm of the gallery. But with four major Drysdale paintings in the TarraWarra collection, Lynn was happy to embrace the exhibition. Indeed it has become one of the gallery’s key streams of activity to present an annual show focussing on a single artist represented in the permanent collection; this year’s Russell Drysdale landscape survey follows on from a successful 2012 retrospective of then-living artist Jeffrey Smart. Curatorship of the current exhibition fell to Christopher Heathcote, “one of Australia’s leading art critics”. When I asked Heathcote how he initially formulated this exhibition, he directed me towards a university library catalogue, where I would find the yield of his research in the sphere of modern Australian art. Indeed Russell Drysdale fits neatly in amongst the demonstrated interests of his career. In the exhibition at TarraWarra, Heathcote positions the artist as an innovator of Australian landscape painting, a visionary who utilised the stylistic methods of European modernism to author a new language through which to communicate Australianness in the visual arts. Using a surrealist approach to scale and subject matter, Drysdale seemed to capture something of the persona of central Australia that had hitherto been incommunicable; such a reading might account for the continuing relevance of his paintings in the contemporary period. As Christopher Heathcote sees it, a crucial theme in Drysdale’s artistic career is his coded depictions of “the troubled state of the world”, as seen in his characteristically desolate paintings of remote Australia. In this observation, Heathcote makes reference to the atrocities and social upheavals surrounding World War II. Two superb works brought together for the exhibition, Desolation (1945) and Crucifixion (1946), exemplify this strand in Drysdale’s practice. The positioning of people – locals it would seem – within the nation’s remove environments is another thematic strand in this exhibition, as can be seen in such works as Man Reading a Newspaper (1941), The Cricketers (1948), and Basket Ball at Broome (1958). In the latter of these we see a skilfully designed scene which highlights both the artist’s interest in contemporary approaches to composition and his interest in finding a new manner in which to portray local communities in the landscape. In this case, the cluster of Aboriginal schoolgirls playing basketball on the left of the scene is strangely counterbalanced by the gesturing figures of a nun and an observing schoolgirl in the opposite foreground of the canvas. Drysdale is often noted for his intimate depictions of Aboriginal communities during his travels around Australia. In response to this – and with an aim “to view the past through the filter of the present,” says Victoria Lynn – TarraWarra Museum of Art is presenting a contemporary display alongside the Drysdale exhibition entitled Future Memorials. This project incorporates the work of Sydney-based Wiradjuri-Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones and Melbourne-based non-Aboriginal artist Tom Nicholson, who together present an inventive memorial to the nearby Coranderrk Aboriginal Station. Coinciding with the 150-year anniversary of Coranderrk, this exhibition locates new visual language through which to communicate the effects of colonialism in the region in which TarraWarra stands. Like Russell Drysdale, Jones and Nicholson use contemporary art practice to give expression to something already existing in the world around them. The current exhibition of Drysdale’s work demonstrates the extent to which new visual language can characterise a nation, particularly as concerns the physical landscape. Russell Drysdale: Defining the Modern Australian Landscape shows at TarraWarra Museum of Art from October 19 to February 9. twma.com.au The companion book, Russell Drysdale: Defining the modern Australian landscape by Christopher Heathcote is published by Wakefield Press, RRP $49.95 wakefieldpress.com.au   Images 1) Russell Drysdale, Road with rocks. Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney © Estate of Russell Drysdale 2) Russell Drysdale, The rabbiters. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne © Estate of Russell Drysdale 3) Russell Drysdale, Evening. Private Collection © Estate of Russell Drysdale 4) Russell Drysdale, Basketball at Broome. Private Collection © Estate of Russell Drysdale

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