Speech by
Justice Roddy Meagher AO

Guest of Honour at the Kedumba Drawing Award 2007

I have spent much time thinking about the relationship between drawing and painting and shall give you the benefit of my thoughts, with apologies for their feebleness.

Some artists are superb painters and also superb draftsmen. Picasso and Matisse are both examples of this phenomenon. To take Picasso, one cannot look at Les Demoiselles d’Avignon without being bowled over by what one instantly recognises as one of the world’s great paintings. And if one looks at his drawings for Guernica one is struck by the savage strength of the denunciation of violence. Guernica is a major work of art, about as great as a drawing you can find. It is therefore mildly surprising, to say the least, that Paul Johnson has just written a book proving  proving if you please!  that Picasso cannot draw.

Some artists are great painters but not great draftsmen, and Camille Pissarro is one of them. Not a hopeless draftsman but an indifferent one; yet he is one of France’s great painters. Dobell is another: who could deny that the painter of Joshua Smith and Margaret Olley is a great painter? But his drawings look a little thin and wooden. They were much overpraised by James Gleeson.

Conversely, some artists are outstanding draftsmen but fairly indifferent painters. Dunoyer de Segonzac is such a one who would kill for one of his slightly faded paintings? But who would not kill for one of his spontaneous drawings? Donald Friend and Brett Whiteley are in the same boat. Friend’s drawings of pretty boys are ravishing, but translated into paint lose their bloom. Whiteley’s drawings are unique, wonderful, a parade of genius; yet his paintings, despite the silly prices they now fetch, are a bit trite and journalistic.

Yet other artists are excellent draftsmen and are seemingly content with that and they never attempt to paint. In this category Dorothy Thornhill is outstanding. Indeed, many good judges consider her the best Australian draftsman who ever lived, and she never did a painting in her life.

There are some people who freely acknowledge that they cannot draw at all but claim an ability to paint. They are liars. Do not believe them. If you can’t draw, you can’t paint.

And finally there are some soi-disant artists who falsely claim to be able both to draw and to paint, but are able to do neither.

It follows, I think, that the art of painting and the art of drawing are quite distinct allied, but distinct. In what does their distinction lie? In civilised countries they are housed in distinct buildings. Thus in Vienna you go to the Kunsthistorische Museum for paintings but to the Albertina to see drawings. In the Art Gallery of New South Wales, on the other hand, you have all the paintings and all the drawings (only, one must add, with the paintings on the walls and the drawings rotting like skivvies in the basement). Thus it is quite fitting that this great little gallery called Kedumba should be devoted to drawings and nothing else.

In a drawing the artist has more blank space to play with than painter does, he thus has more freedom, more challenge, more room to manoeuvre. From this two things follow:

  1. In a drawing the space is as much a part of the drawing as the lines are; AND
  2. In a drawing one cannot fudge and in a painting one can – and does.

As a consequence a painting will always be more overwhelming, more majestic, more powerful than a drawing; but a good drawing will always be more sensitive, more spiritual and perhaps more immediately effective than a painting.

A drawing compared to a painting is an epigram compared to an epic. It is caviar compared to beef stew. It is chamber music compared to a gigantic novel. It is Voltaire compared to Patrick White.

Indeed that comparison is of some interest. That unpleasant old curmudgeon, Patrick White, was famed for his art collection. When the collection was finally opened for public inspection on the old brute’s death, it was found to contain dozens, if not hundreds, of paintings – but virtually no drawings.

There are also some other characteristics of drawing (as opposed to paintings), which occur to me. These may be controversial but seem to me to be valid.

One is that a drawing lends itself to distortion more effectively than a painting does. Think Rogan Hilton in England and think Godfrey Miller in Australia. Both strengthen the impact of their drawings by dramatic distortion effects. There is little equivalent in paintings. Truly Picasso was a master of pictorial distortion, but even there you may find some support for my thesis. His famous drawings for Guernica, for example, display forces of emotion much more powerful than anything you will find in his endless paintings of frontal-cum-profile distorted heads of women.

Likewise with caricature. What a procession of brilliant caricature drawings are there by Rowlandson, McGilvray, Osbert Lancaster and, in Australia, George Molnar. What great paintings are there in this field? Why is it that Rowlandson can create comic pictures of politicians and soldiers which is beyond the capacity of Gainsbrough? Why are Daumier’s caricatures of lawyers so much better than his paintings? . . . . . .

I now officially announce the opening of the 2007 Kedumba Drawing Award.