MELBOURNE.- Sotheby's will hold its Important Australian Art sale on August 25 and inscluded is an important lot made by Russell Drysdale.
Russell Drysdale has a particularly distinguished place in 20th century Australian art, as pioneer modernist, landscape surrealist, social documentarist and sympathetic recorder of Aboriginal traditions. But he is probably most fondly regarded for his portraits of European bush battlers, for 'his compassionate record of a people and an epoch in a limbo that is partly reality, part legend.
The celebrated character portraits are not sentimental-nationalist fictions, but distillations of deep personal and social truths. Drysdale grew up on the land, and remebered 'men... born about 1860s... men who had shorn down the Darling and whose fathers before them reached back into the days of ticket-of-leave men, the rural workers, the nomads, the shearers, the yard-builders, all those curious strange people who had little luggage but a swag, and who travelled and made and built the ethos that we know in the back country today. And even as a boy, a young lad, I virtually was in touch with it because I was talking to old men whose memories of their fathers' stories were still extant.'
In 1962 Drysdale met Patrick McCormack, a Riverina farmer then working as foreman at the Tocumwal aerodrome. McCormack was nicknamed 'Rocky', from his having spent some years with the New South Wales Railways based at The Rock, near Wagga Wagga, and Rocky McCormack would prove to be 'one ... of the artist's favourite characters like Midnight Osborne, Old Larsen, Billy the Lurk and Brandy John, who have become part of folklore.'
Initially drawn literally larger than life, the portrait did not satisfy the artist, and he subsequently decided to reduce the scale. It was a slow, difficult adjustment, and the painting was not finally completed until the following year. Other factors contributed to the delay, and not just Drysdale's famous prevarication. The artist's son Tim took his own life in July 1962, and the tragedy had a devastating impact on Drysdale and his wife Bon. Inconsolable, Bon too committed suicide, in November the following year.
Despite the technical difficulty of the scaling-back and the personal trauma Drysdale suffered during this period, Rocky McCormack nevertheless presents a broad, relaxed, amiable image. In this Rocky is not unique; while many of Drysdale's outback women and children (and Aboriginal men) have blank or melancholy expressions, his male bush battlers are often jovial, whether with the vacant smile of Happy Jack (1961, private collection) or the more sardonic,under-the-moustache grins of Old Harry (1961,private collection) or The Old Boss (1967, private collection). Under a thatch of dark, unruly hair, Rocky's pushed-back, upturned hat brim has something of the comic aspect of Chad Morgan's, his crows'-feet crinkle with amusement and his broad, slightly lop-sided smile radiates good humour and goodwill. Below this friendly dial the sitter's torso comfortably occupies the full bottom of the canvas, the arms loosely folded, the rolled-up sleeves revealing the strong forearms and big hands of the archetypal bush worker.
One of only a mere handful of paintings completed during Drysdale's annus horribilis of 1962-63, and a work of unusually ambitious scale, Rocky McCormack is a beautiful, harmonious arrangement in opal red and blue, and one of the largest, most successful and most popular of the artist's justly-celebrated bush portraits.