IMPRINT OF THE DIVINE
Stars in the River: The Prints of Jessie Traill National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, to June 14
NO one interested in printmaking should miss the admirable exhibition devoted to Jessie Traill at the National Gallery of Australia. In his introduction, Roger Butler, the gallery’s curator of prints, recalls Traill was one of three Australian artists he aspired to collect when he was appointed to his post. In the ensuing years, Butler has been successful in his ambition, and the holdings of the gallery — together with loans from the Art Gallery of NSW — are now presented as a monographic exhibition, accompanied by an excellent catalogue that includes essays by Tim Bonyhady, Rebecca Edwards, Sarina Noordhuis-Fairfax and Macushla Robinson.
Retrospectives of artists one has known only from tantalising glimpses in private collections and elsewhere can sometimes be disappointing; here, on the contrary, the achievement is clearer than ever and Traill herself emerges as even more interesting.
This, incidentally, is a model of what can be achieved by a long-term approach to collecting and scholarship, and an example of what a real vision for a museum should begin with: the building of the collection, not the erection of monumental spaces for short-term exhibitions and the pursuit of mass attendances. The rediscovery of an artist previously almost unknown to the public has been achieved by patient focus on substance, not the excitable scurrying after over-promoted art fashions. JESSIE Traill (1881-1967) was born in Melbourne to a well-to-do family — her father ran a vanilla plantation in the Seychelles and was later a bank manager — and she and her sisters spent the last years of the 19th century at a boarding school in Switzerland, where she became fluent in French and German; she also acquired a more cosmopolitan outlook than most of her compatriots, while also being well connected in Australia — Tom Roberts, for example, was a lifelong friend and Frederick McCubbin was one of her teachers at the National Gallery of Victoria School.
Spiritually too, her horizons may be thought of as broader than those of her contemporaries. Religious practice was pervasive in Australia a century ago, though perhaps less prominent in many people’s minds than the ethnic and class differences that separated the four main Christian confessions; certainly religious experience is almost nonexistent as a theme in the Australian art of the time. But Traill’s family were Anglicans who took their faith very seriously, and two of her sisters joined a religious community, a rare thing even for the High Church. She shared their intense belief and, like them, did not marry; the relatively early death of both her parents, too, no doubt strengthened the bond between the siblings.
She began her art training when printmaking — which had undergone a revival in the later 19th century in Europe — was just beginning to flower in Australia. The NGV had acquired in 1891-92 a collection that included Rembrandt and Durer as well as important recent and contemporary figures such as Francis Seymour Haden, James McNeill Whistler and the earlier Charles Meryon; this last was a brilliant etcher of the urban fabric of Paris in particular and the subject of the exhibition Captivated by Darkness that closed at the Hamburg Kunsthalle in March.
Traill’s first printmaking teacher in Mel- bourne was John Mather, who had come from Scotland with a strong basis in the techniques of etching, but also a sensitivity to the forms of trees, the moods of nature and the effects of wind and weather, whose echoes can be detected throughout her career, even in a later piece such as The Hunter, Philip Island (1930). Perhaps above all she learned from him that the world of nature had to be imaginatively transmuted into the language of printmaking.
In 1907, she travelled for several months with her father, who died while they were in Rome. He was buried — a detail that doesn’t seem to be mentioned in the catalogue but can be verified in the online database — in the Protestant cemetery, famous for the graves of Keats and Shelley, among others. Traill went on to England where she continued her study of printmaking under the charismatic Frank Brangwyn, whose fondness for a larger scale and for dramatic effects of chiaroscuro is reflected in her own early Charing Cross Bridge (1907). Brangwyn’s teaching was important in her development, but her mature sensibility would be different and more subtle. She studied Rembrandt too, as one would expect of any etcher: her Interior (1910) is a direct tribute to his Alchemist. And she was clearly aware of contemporaries such as Sydney Long, although she is not as indebted to art nouveau and much less concerned with the decorative.
The work of Traill’s maturity is dominated by two subjects: one is the bush, often drawn directly from the country property she acquired with her sister Elsie at Harkaway, southeast of Melbourne. The house there is the subject of a small and evocative etching in which it nestles in the bush at night: it is the view of one who has been out for a night walk and returns from dark boundlessness to the comforting interior world suggested by the lights in the windows.
The images of the bush are mostly nocturnes, not only because the artist has a preference for moody effects of tone but no doubt too because she understands the bush is most itself at night. It is then — from dusk to dawn — that so many of Australia’s native animals come out; nature comes to life with noises amplified by the silence, and the forest, bleak in the glare and oblivion of the midday sun, becomes mysterious and suggestive.
It is easy to imagine how this powerful feeling of invisible yet pervasive animation could be experienced by a religious person as a manifestation of the immanent presence of the
divine in the created world. There is a theological, even specifically Christian feeling in the triptych Man and Nature (1914), with its three sections titled The Gift, The Sacrifice and The Reward, in which nature seems to sacrifice herself willingly to make way for the advancement of man. As Bonyhady shows in his essay, this is not only a variation on McCubbin’s triptych The Pioneer, painted only nine years earlier in 1904, but in fact the first case of what is often called appropriation in the history of Australian art.
It is less obvious but even more interesting to consider a religious interpretation of Traill’s other important theme, and ultimately her greatest achievement, the series of images devoted to the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. She was not the only person to perceive its significance, of course. Undertaken in the middle of the Depression, this enormously ambitious project could not but be understood as a symbol of hope and of reaching beyond the dismal present into a brighter future.
It was a feat of engineering, strength and even courage, but Traill never dwells on the theme of human agency; her figures are tiny, scurrying over the site like ants, all busy but each working in obedience to some purpose that is beyond his individual understanding. And this is why, although the earlier images in particular recall yet another great model in the history of etching, Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s intriguing and sinister Carceri d’Invenzione, it is not dread or menace that they convey but rather the sense of destiny or even what Evelyn Waugh referred to as the operation of grace.
Hope, after all, is also one of the theological virtues, and we have seen in the triptych just discussed that Traill could associate the religious and even the mystical with the progress of history and civilisation. She was part of the generation that grew to adulthood
TONE IS EMPLOYED WITH GREAT SKILL TO DEFINE MASS AND SPACE
in the early years of Federation, many of whom, like my grandfathers, were conscious of the responsibility of building a new nation. NOWHERE is Traill’s sensitivity to the expressive resources of her medium more apparent than in the difference between the earlier and later images in the series. The first ones, before the construction of the great arch had begun, show workers and scaffolding and the building of the great pylons at each extremity of the bridge. The emphasis is on line, articulating the complexity of the construction site and evoking its scale and depth. The middle works, once the arch has begun to reach away from each end, are the most memorable because of the drama and sheer physical tension of massive weight stretching into the void. It is here she is able to reduce the complexity of the design, simplify the masses and create memorable images that, in the manner of a synecdoche, encapsulate the whole extraordinary enterprise, as with the long cable stretching the whole height of the composition to lift a massive girder from a barge on the harbour.
In these middle images, the etched line still does most of the work of narrative exposition, but tone is employed with great skill to define mass and space, as well as to control the precise calibration of mood and feeling. In the last images, however, when the labour is completed and the drama has dissipated, the bridge floats over the water like a vision and the etched line disappears almost entirely, leaving a shadow form of aquatint — also the medium of the earlier triptych.
Line and shadow are the two elements of which her work is composed, like all etching and perhaps even more explicitly in the modern prints that were her direct inspiration. Shadow or tone can be achieved in different ways, including with aquatint and even mezzotint in one case, and commonly too by foul biting, which entails leaving the plate in the acid so its whole surface becomes bitten in random pits that lend tone and texture.
To a greater or lesser degree, Traill also exploits plate tone, which is the residual ink that remains on the plate after it has been wiped, so that areas of tone can be achieved simply by wiping less thoroughly. Lighter areas can be made by wiping back selectively with a tarlatan, and highlights — like windows in the house in the bush — by rubbing the ink off almost entirely with something harder like a stump. Interestingly, she seems not to use this last technique after the early 1920s and resorts instead to the more laborious but more subtle technique of aquatint: for the excessive wiping back breaks the continuity of the pictorial surface and disturbs the quiet and serene attention evoked by her most memorable images.
Facing page, Building the Harbour Bridge VI: Nearly Complete (1931); this page, From Overseas (1913)