The Cross of Erosion

by Tim Bonyhady

© all rights reserved

When the Mardi Gras comes to Sydney, the Art Gallery of New South Wales has no difficulty organizing an exhibition of photographs of male nudes. When Floriade takes place each year in Canberra, the National Gallery of Australia dutifully increases its display of flower pictures. When the Grand Prix hits Melbourne, the National Gallery of Victoria suddenly recognizes the importance of the car in art.

But what do our galleries do for Christmas and Easter, let alone other religious festivals? They ignore them, not because the car in art is more important than the cross, but because all our major galleries are now firmly embedded in the tourism industry and, for all its commercialization, the Passion of Our Lord is not a Major Event which brings custom from interstate, let alone overseas. Not even Jeff Kennett has yet succeeded in marketing Easter in Melbourne in this way.

If our galleries had their eyes on God, not Mammon, they might show us Roger Kemp’s Ascensionwhich suggests general cosmic forces as much as the risen Christ. We might be shocked by Arthur Boyd’s Crucifixion which shows the cross rising not from dry land but the waters of the Shoalhaven River, the figure devoid of even a loin cloth and a woman rather than a man being crucified.

Not least, we might see Russell Drysdale‘s Crucifixion which is exceptional for being as much about soil erosion as life everlasting. This Crucifixion is a key picture not only in relation to the religious dimension of Australian high culture but also our willingness to acknowledge the environmental limits of the land.

Drysdale’s Crucifixion was inspired by his experiences in 1944 – a devastating El Nino year when the drought in western New South Wales was the worst on record. When a series of dust-storms hit the east coast, bringing soil erosion home both literally and metaphorically to the majority of Australians, the Sydney Morning Herald persuaded Drysdale to accompany one of its feature writers and photographers to the ‘Western Inferno’.

This commission not only brought Drysdale’s art to a bigger audience than ever before, but also provoked fierce debate about the accuracy of his imagery and the appropriateness of revealing what was wrong with the country. The key issue was whether Europeans were responsible for erosion and, if so, whether fault lay with farmers for ‘flogging the country’ or with government for subdividing the land into parcels too small to be both economic and environmentally sustainable.

This debate started when the Herald published Drysdale’s drawings in 1944; it continued when Drysdale held an exhibition of his paintings in Sydney in 1945; it took a new twist when Drysdale agreed to paint a Crucifixion for Neil McEacharn, whose influence over Sydney artists in the mid-1940s rivalled that of John and Sunday Reed at Heide in Melbourne. Early in 1946 the artist Donald Friend observed that ‘reviewing the last few years, it’s astonishing the effect Neil McEacharn has had in Australian art’.1 According to Friend, McEacharn and his wife Imma ‘set a standard which Australia had not not known before, at the very moment when contemporary painting needed just that impetus.’

When McEacharn first suggested that Drysdale paint a crucifixion, Friend was unenthusiastic because he ‘thought in terms of the conventional treatment of the subject – a lot of people milling about crosses in the foreground’. Drysdale, who until then had never painted a religious subject and does not seem to have been at all devout, was probably equally sceptical. But then McEacharn displayed ‘a visual imagination’ which Drysdale and Friend ‘had not realised he possessed’ as he described a landscape “stark and dramatically lonely, with a lowering rich sky pierced with strange lights – The ground receeding flatly into immense distances, and far, far away, the people and the three crosses, and through the whole painting a feeling of something terrible happening: the moment when ‘the veil of the temple was rent’.”

Drysdale was persuaded. Soon he was making drawings of ‘fleeing shapes’. Then he was grappling with the balance between the religious and the environmental content of his painting. As described by Friend: ‘the fleeing figures were scrapped, the actual crucifixes moved several miles back into an immense perspective of receding desert and a great gaunt brooding figure was introduced into the foreground, then wiped out completely and brought back again’. By 1946, the painting was finished. Characteristically, Drysdale showed the land as lifeless, the sky red with dust. Friend thought it ‘a great tragedy superbly expressed’.

Sydneysiders had their first opportunity to see the Crucifixion a month later when McEacharn lent it to the Art Gallery of New South Wales before taking it to England. According to the Gallery’s director Hal Missingham, the Crucifixion was ‘the peak’ of Drysdale’s ‘pictorial study of soil erosion’; it suggested ‘the soil of Australia crucified on the cross of erosion’. When the Melbourne Herald reproduced the Crucifixion a few days later, it similarly described it as an ‘allegorical painting’ about erosion. According to Donald Friend, who was in Melbourne at the time, it made ‘a great sensation’.

Frank F. Forster, Inspector of Stock with the Milparinka Pastures Protection Board at Tibooburra in far western New South Wales, was unimpressed even though he had no opportunity to see the Crucifixion at the Gallery and may not even have seen a photograph of it as the Sydney Morning Herald did not reproduce the painting. But Forster knew from Drysdale’s drawings that the Crucifixion would outrage him. Having previously protested in vain to the Herald that Drysdale had ‘slandered’ the country, Forster complained instead to the Department of Agriculture in Sydney.

Forster was outraged because he believed that erosion was neither new nor the fault of Europeans. So he declared that one of Drysdale’s drawings of a bullock skeleton, published by the Herald in 1944, was a sight everyone had ‘been familiar with since the country was stocked’. The same was true of another of Drysdale’s drawings of ‘an isolated dead tree from which the sand had blown and exposed a couple of feet of roots’. According to Foster, he not only had ‘known odd trees exactly the same dotted here and there about the place for 40 years past’ but it was ‘a certainty Captain Sturt saw the same thing’ when he explored the area in the 1840s.

Forster was most concerned that when McEacharn exhibited the Crucifixion overseas, Missingham’s ‘appreciation and patronage’ of Drysdale’s work might give it ‘some official status’ which ‘could have very damaging results abroad’. As an antidote, he suggested a painting of ‘a property where the stocking is controlled’. Even better, he wanted a painting of RegenerationÊdepicting the immediate environs of Broken Hill which had been devastated by a combination of timber-getting, over-grazing and rabbits until the town’s mining companies paid heed to a local amateur botanist, Albert Morris, and set about their restoration.

This work was instigated by Broken Hill’s Zinc Corporation in 1936 out of self-interest. The company wanted to stop its new plant being covered by drifting sand. The first area it restored – now known as Albert Morris Memorial Park – was designed as a windbreak. But later work was jointly funded by the Zinc Corporation, North and South Broken Hill and the New South Wales government for more communal benefit. By 1939 10 ‘Regeneration Reserves’ covering 900 hectares formed a protective arc from the south-east to the north-west of the city.

By 1946, when Forster protested about the Crucifixion, these reserves were Australia’s most celebrated example of environmental regeneration. While the companies had planted over 30,000 trees, the key to their success was that Morris insisted on a 2-metre rabbit-proof fence to keep out exotic animals, just like John Walmsley, more recently, on his sanctuaries in South Australia. By 1939 this exclusion of exotic animals had allowed 142 different species of native plants and grasses to return to the enclosures. By mid-1940s over 200 species had been recorded.

Australia’s first Minister for Conservation, W.F. Dunn, agreed with Forster. Dunn argued that, if the Crucifixion were sent to England, it would ‘create a false impression’ of the State for people who did not know it. He also maintained that there were ‘many subjects available to artists which would show the agricultural and pastoral richness representative of a great portion’ of New South Wales and that Forster’s suggestion of Regeneration was ‘a good one … well worthy of … a painting’.

The lot of defending the Gallery fell to Hal Missingham who emphasized that the Crucifixion would not be exhibited in England under his authority. Missingham also acknowledged that Regeneration would make a fine subject for an artist interested in depicting it. But he equally upheld Drysdale as ‘one of our leading painters’ and defended his artistic freedom ‘to paint any aspect of the subject which he considers to be important or relevant to himself’. In particular, Missingham insisted that it was not the lot of artists to depict Australia from ‘a Travel Tourist Agencies point of view’ – a view our galleries still maintain while forgetting that their place in the tourist industry now sometimes defines what they exhibit.


Tim Bonyhady is a member of the ANU’s Urban Research Program. His books include Images in Opposition: Australian Landscape Painting 1801-1890 (OUP, 1991) and Places Worth Keeping: Conservationists, Politics and Law (Allen & Unwin, 1993).


1. All quotations from Donald Friend are taken from his diaries in the National Library of Australia, Canberra.


Preview another article by Tim Bonyhady in Environment and History: Artist with Axes.

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