Australian Collection Focus
Sunday evening 1941
Russell Drysdale Sunday evening 1941: towards an Australian archetype
Russell Drysdale became widely recognised during the immediate post World War II period as the pre-eminent painter of the people and landscape of the Australian inland, but first came to public notice through his Riverina subjects of 1941. Sunday evening 1941, one of this early Riverina group, was of seminal importance in the development of the artist's unique vision of country people, and of the Australian landscape. As one of his first paintings on an inland theme, this work broke radically with the established Heidelberg school vision of rural Australia as a sun-drenched pastoral arcadia - imagery which, decades previously, had come to epitomise for most Australians the essential characteristics of their land and people.
Instead, in a painting which revealed the idiosyncrasies of an emerging personal style, and signalled the future importance of the figure to his image of Australia, Drysdale focused on an evocation of strange human survival amidst the isolation and aridity of the interior - a place 'alien to man, harsh, weird, spacious and vacant, given over to the oddities and whimsies of nature, fit only for heroes and clowns, saints, exiles and primitive men'.(1)
A countryman by upbringing, Drysdale admired and felt great empathy with rural people. His tribute in Sunday evening to their fortitude in the face of harsh environmental and economic realities, arose out of his poignant memories of life in the hinterlands of New South Wales and Victoria during the 1920s and Depression years of the 1930s. Drysdale wanted to capture the essence of what he had seen and felt of the harsh realities of life for many people at that time, an influence he later acknowledged fully.
Although Drysdale was born in England, the family had interests at the time in Australia, and settled permanently here in 1923. His father's family had pioneered as pastoralists from the 1820s, first in Tasmania, then in the Western District of Victoria, the Riverina and North Queensland. Drysdale spent his school holidays on various pastoral properties in Victoria and from 1926, at the family property, Boxwood Park, between Albury and Corowa in New South Wales. In common with many of his friends he hoped to forge a life on the land, and worked as a jackeroo on sheep stations in the Riverina, also assisting at the family sugar mills in Queensland after leaving school. But Drysdale's aspirations to become a grazier were supplanted by a keener desire to become a painter, encouraged by prominent Melbourne artist and teacher George Bell, who recognised his artistic talent. A subsequent visit to Europe where he sought out the artists Bell had mentioned, confirmed his decision to pursue this new direction. However it was not until 1941, when he had already experimented widely as a student and sought a direction of his own, that he recognised the possibility of drawing upon his experiences of inland life.
Painted in Sydney, shortly after Drysdale had moved there from Melbourne in late 1940, Sunday evening was perhaps directly inspired by a recent period spent working in the Riverina where, being medically unfit for army service, he had managed Boxwood Park on behalf of a friend who had joined up, following the outbreak of war.
In Melbourne Drysdale, like many of his contemporaries, had been influenced by Russian immigrant artist Danila Vassilieff's scenes of life in the city streets; while his first teacher George Bell had encouraged an interest in everyday subjects such as men at work. As a student in Paris during 1938 Drysdale had also witnessed a move among younger painters to paint the world around them as they experienced it.(2) Whereas Melbourne-based contemporaries such as Noel Counihan, Albert Tucker and Arthur Boyd were increasingly focusing on urban themes, Drysdale's background drew him to the people and life of the interior.
A significant parallel with this new direction in Drysdale's subject matter, and to a degree his approach to it, may be seen in a number of works on outback themes produced by his fellow artist and friend Peter Purves Smith in 1939-1940. These paintings, in particular Drought I, Drought II and Tourer of 1940, with their representations of emaciated animals in arid Australian landscapes and ramshackle farm clutter, have been recognised as immediate precursors to and possible models for, Drysdale's first inland subjects of 1941.(3) The two artists shared a background on the land, had both studied under George Bell in Melbourne, and worked together closely in Paris and London before the war, where they shared nostalgic memories of their experiences of Australian country life.
In a broad sense, Drysdale was re-addressing themes of drought and the hardship of European settler life - melancholy perceptions with a long literary and visual history in Australia, as seen in the work of 19th century Australian artist William Strutt for example and later in particular, that of Frederick McCubbin.(4) Drysdale's interest in the dry, sparsely vegetated inland country was also foreshadowed by Hans Heysen's works of the 1920s and 30s.(5) Hence the artist's new focus was in a sense a reprise of earlier settler themes which had been rendered largely invisible by Heidelberg, and later interwar images of Australian pastoralist splendour.
The basis of Drysdale's approach lay in modernist French and British art of the period through George Bell, a progressive, who had introduced him to the Post-Impressionists, stressing the importance of Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse. On his own visits to Europe in 1932 and 1938-39 Drysdale had paid particular attention to the work of Modigliani, Soutine, Kisling and Derain in France; while in England, he would have experienced contemporary enthusiasm for the paintings of Christopher Wood and been aware of the work of Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore, among others.
Yet whilst a particular influence from Modigliani is clear in the figural elongation and primitivist mask-like faces in Sunday evening, Drysdale's construction and grouping attests to the importance of classical principles concerning form, structure and design inculcated by George Bell and reflective of a wider revival of the period. Such influences, which merge with the Surrealist overtones of the painting, are perhaps the chief means by which Drysdale forges his unique vision.
In the still glow of evening a strong 'Madonna' type figure in green pom-pom slippers, seated astride a kerosene tin, is flanked by the impassive figures of her children and husband. Poverty is portrayed in every detail of the work: the mother's improvised seat, the tin washing bowl on the bare ground as baby's bath, the distant lavatory, and bicycle as sole apparent means of transport. The placement of figures and objects in an otherwise empty landscape heightens the sense of drama and atmosphere, resulting in a painting that evokes sentiments which for Drysdale, encapsulated the social realities of life in the backblocks during the Depression era. And yet, a sense of strangeness is underlined by an ambiguous direction of light: the male standing figures and outhouse lit from the left; the mother, children and tree from the right. Hence, with its evocation of the bizarre incongruity of human presence in such an apparently inhospitable place, the painting also reflects Drysdale's love of the curious individuality of bush life, with its unlikely associations and oddities.
The figures form a static tableau which veers towards parody yet is rescued by the resolution of Drysdale's colour and composition, and his empathy with his subjects. Crucial elements of Sunday evening - the intense yet sombre palette, the sense of human belonging yet dislocation in such an inhospitable landscape, the scatter of disparate objects marking a home in the 'desert' - combine to form an unforgettable image of the weird quality of life in Australia as a country at the end of the earth. As artist and commentator James Gleeson said in 1960: 'It is as though he had sought to state the essence of the landscape in terms of human beings ... grown out of the soil on which they stand. Long struggle with years of drought has dried the sap in them. Their gaunt limbs have in them the grim pathos of undernourishment, and their hands seem too heavy to raise without the greatest difficulty.'(6) Subsequently, Drysdale would resolve these attenuated figures into the monumental, heroic country types characteristic of his maturity, such as in his famous The drover's wife of 1945, which would come to be seen by many as characters defining a quintessential Australianness.
Aware in particular of Nash and other English artists' images of nature ravaged by war, and exposed to Surrealism, a pervasive force among artists at this time, Drysdale recognised no less potent a metaphor for the human condition in the geographic realities of the Australian interior. But he was perhaps most forcefully affected by the disquieting mood, vacancy of landscape and sheer whimsy witnessed in the Surrealist-influenced work of his more immediate associate, Peter Purves Smith. There are affinities too between Purves Smith's expressive use of angular elongated figures and Drysdale's figures in Sunday evening. But although in many respects a 'hybrid' work, like his other inland subjects of 1941, this painting marked a distinctive personal breakthrough for him. Largely abandoning the stylistic borrowings of his student years, Drysdale wrought a vocabulary of gesture, motif and figure groupings that would become characteristic of his mature vision of the 'archetypal' inhabitants of inland Australia.
This artistic breakthrough was recognised in his first solo exhibition in Sydney, held at Macquarie Galleries in 1942 where Sunday evening was purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales; the first of Drysdale's works to enter the collection and something of a challenge to the conservative tastes of then Director Will Ashton and his trustees.(7) Indeed the notoriously conservative Bulletin critic wrote that Drysdale's 'attenuated, elongated figures with ghastly faces' recalled 'the more bloodcurdling efforts of Matisse and Modigliani'.(8)
In terms of Drysdale's oeuvre, a number of early works can be singled out as important precursors to Sunday evening. Of these, the small drawing Siesta produced in 1937 whilst a student of George Bell, is of particular interest for its exaggerated perspective and inclusion of such characteristically rural features as a corrugated iron water tank and weatherboard building.(9) The portrayal of a family group is also foreshadowed in an earlier student painting The rabbiter and his family of 1938 in which certain poses and motifs seen in Sunday evening, begin to evolve. The mother and child was one of Drysdale's favoured subjects and would become increasingly so: it was a subject greatly popularised by the influential English artist Henry Moore in this decade.
However no study for the composition of Sunday evening is known and although Drysdale typically created his paintings from scaled-up drawings even at this early stage, viewing of this painting under infra-red light has revealed an absence of any grid beneath the paint layers and only quite sketchy under drawing. From this we can deduce that Drysdale may have painted without basing his composition on a separate fully scaled-up compositional drawing, or that if he used previous drawings, he copied from them quite loosely, resulting in considerable reworking of the composition evident in certain areas of the painting. In this context, two early drawings of rural workers: Man with a pitchfork and Tar boy and another, Woman by window
(all c.1941) are of particular interest, since each bears significant resemblances to the corresponding central figure in Sunday evening. It is possible that Drysdale extracted elements from them in composing this painting.
Drysdale adopted early this practice of extracting and repeating elements from previous sketches or paintings although characteristically, like his paintings, his drawings were entirely derived from memory and intellect, and executed in the studio, rather than sketched in the presence of his subjects.
Thus the figures of the baby and young girl in Sunday evening may also be based on similarly composed forms of a baby and girl in his drawings of around this time The family c.1940 and Study for 'Two children' 1941 for example. Drysdale's experience of his own young family (daughter Lynne, born February 1938 and son Tim, born April 1940) and numerous photographs he took of them as babies and young children would also have assisted his formulations. Indeed, the static poses and orientation towards the viewer of the figures in Sunday evening are reminiscent of a posed photographic portrait, and may be partly explained by Drysdale's interest in photography and the ways in which people present themselves to the camera.(10)
Interesting connections have also been made between the evolution of Drysdale's artistic vision of the people, landscape and townships of country Australia during the 1940s, and the typical subjects and imagery of certain pictorial magazines, films and literature of the period.(11)
Alienation from society and from the land, as well as triumph over hardship were recurring humanist themes in the literature and art of western societies during the 1930s Depression years and through the upheaval of war. They were manifested in forms ranging from American New Deal photography,(12) to the 'Western' movie genre and literary classics such as John Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath'. In this sense, Drysdale's Sunday evening becomes part of a context of concerns larger than the merely national. Indeed an interesting parallel was drawn at the time of their exhibition between Drysdale's Riverina subjects and the work of American contemporaries such as Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton who, following studies in Paris, turned from a purely formal path to explore regional themes.(13) Significant similarities have also been recognised in the manner in which perceptions of 'the bush' or 'the West' have shaped the respective national identities of America and Australia.
Notwithstanding these broader affinities which Drysdale has evoked, Sunday evening and his early inland subjects of 1941 heralded his future role in shaping an identity which was seen to be distinctively national. In what has been recognised as a critical step towards expressing our national difference (14), Drysdale shaped a vision that would extend the Australian archetype to the people and landscape of the inland frontier.
Assistant Curator, Australian Art
(1) Smith, 1962, p. 251
(2) Russell Drysdale, letter to Bernard Smith (6 July 1944), in Bernard Smith 'Sir Russell Drysdale (1912-1918): A memoir', Art Monthly Australia, June 1998, no. 110, p. 26
(3) First pointed out by Bernard Smith in Smith, 1962, pp. 240, 242; subsequently referred to by all authors of monographs on Drysdale; also Eagle and Minchin 1981, p. 102; Eagle 200l, pp. 176-177
(4) Smith, 1962, pp. 245, 247
(5) Ibid., p. 114
(6) James Gleeson, Art Gallery of New South Wales Quarterly, Sydney, 1960, p. 41
(7) A Drysdale acquisition was somewhat difficult since two previously offered paintings were rejected and acceptance only forthcoming following pressure through Macquarie Galleries' offer of a third option (correspondence and Board minutes, February-March 1942, Art Gallery of New South Wales Archives)
(8) 'Sundry Shows', Bulletin, 25 March 1942
(9) Eagle and Minchin, 1981, p. 108
(10) Klepac, 1983, p. 59
(11) Plant, 1987, p.15. See also Ian Burn, National Life and Landscape: Australian Painting 1900-1940, Bay Books, Sydney, 1990, p. 192 and Gavin Wilson, The Artists of Hill End: Art, Life and Landscape, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1995, p. 23, for references to the increasing preponderance of inland or outback imagery during the 1930s and 1940s, across various media.
(12) In particular the photographic project 1935-1943 initiated through The Resettlement Administration (later The Farm Security Administration or F.S.A.), established under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal government. The mandate of this agency's Historical Section-Photographic was to document problems of rural America and the government's success in solving them. The agency employed about twenty photographers including notable, established practitioners such as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Ben Shahn, and produced photographs that have become widely known for their representation of the Depression.
(13) Ure Smith, 1943, p. 32; Smith, 1945, p. 247-248
(14) Wilson, 1995, p.24
©Art Gallery of New South Wales 2001