The Diaries of Donald Friend: Volume 2
National Library of Australia, $59.95 hb, 752pp, 0 642 10765 3
When he died in 1989, the artist Donald Friend left a double legacy. The first was his artistic output, as various, dazzling and charming as it was vigorously contested in terms of its ultimate quality. The second was an accumulation of forty-nine diaries commenced precociously at the age of fourteen, kept briefly for a year or two and then, from the war years on, written lovingly and obsessively for much of the rest of his life. Friend’s art as draughtsman and painter is widely held in public and private collections; the bulk of the surviving diaries were eventually acquired by the National Library of Australia. Profusely illustrated, these intimate personal records document a remarkable life while providing a detailed insight into one man’s struggle with the processes of making art. In their span, the diaries constitute an extraordinary individual record of twentieth-century Australian experience in war and peace.
Despite his sublime mastery of line and form – especially in his preoccupation with the male nude – Friend has always had a tough time of it in the reputation stakes. Others such as Russell Drysdale, his contemporary and for a time one of his most admired friends, tower above him. As curator and critic Barry Pearce has observed, one of the problems with judging Friend’s oeuvre is his absence of singularity. By this, he meant the lack of a compelling masterpiece, the absence of anything a modern gallery director might define as a destination painting. But while others have damned with faint praise, Pearce knows where the treasure is buried. Friend shone as a draughtsman, one of Australia’s finest: ‘[W]ith Donald you have to peruse the pages of books, storage racks, request the solander box from the print room, visit the manuscript library, accumulate the parts and put them together in your mind.’