Portrait of George Johnston 1966
Rockhampton Art Gallery Trust Fund, purchased with the assistance of Joseph Brown 1997
Outback postmistress and daughter 1976
Art Acquisition Fund, purchased with the assistance of the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council 1977
oil on canvas oil on canvas
The work of Russell Drysdale, particularly his outback landscapes, is charged with defining a new era in the depiction of the Australian bush. His stark images of towns, migrant workers, farmers and Indigenous people present a much harsher reality than do the artists of the Heidelberg School. His work can also be viewed in the context of European painting traditions and a Modernist aesthetic.
The Drysdales had long been pioneers and pastoralists; Russell’s grandfather emigrated from Scotland in 1875 and acquired a sugar plantation in North Queensland as well as properties in Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales. After completing his schooling at Geelong Grammar, young Drysdale seemed destined to life on the land.
However, while in hospital recovering from serious eye surgery, he began sketching. His talent was quickly identified by his doctor, who contacted a friend, artist Daryl Lindsay—who encouraged Drysdale to develop his art and study overseas. Drysdale trained with George Bell from 1935 to 1938 at the Bell-Shore school, where he was introduced to the work of Paul Cezanne and the concepts of modernism. He then travelled to England and France to study at the Grosvenor School and Paris ateliers.
Drysdale was primarily a studio painter who worked from notes, drawings and photographs. His work, which combined the ordinary with the heroic, was widely embraced at home, particularly by newly arrived immigrants seeking a sense of postwar identity and belonging.
Portrait of George Johnston resulted from two of Australia’s most revered cultural talents working together. Johnston, a novelist, journalist and former war correspondent, frequently visited Drysdale’s home, Bouddi, a 90 minute drive north of Sydney. This portrait was painted there in 1967—because Johnston had written a script for ABC Television that required Drysdale to paint his portrait. The picture is unpretentious. The pose, clothing, and particularly the form of the fingers, combine to emphasise Johnston’s profession. Twice he won the prestigious Miles Franklin Literary Award, and his semi-autobiographical novel, My Brother Jack, is an Australian classic.
Outback postmistress and daughter, painted towards the end of Drysdale’s life, achieves the intimacy of a portrait while presenting an archetypal image once familiar in the outback. Mother and daughter are distanced from the viewer not only by the physical barrier of the serving counter but also by the languid unresponsiveness of their facial expressions. The mother averts her eyes and we are drawn into the painting by the curious yet closed gaze of the daughter.
Other works by Russell Drysdale in the collection
Russell Drysdale (1912 - 1981) | Study for Basketball at Broome 1958 | Charcoal on wove paper | Acquired 1985 | 1985.005