The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christopher Allen

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


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)

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