Jessie blazed a printmaking trail

Stars in the River: the prints of Jessie Traill at Geelong Gallery, closing Sunday 14 February 2016.

I have no doubt that the remarkable Australian printmaker, Jessie Traill, would have been as well known as some of her art contemporaries, had she been a man. As a woman working in the medium of etching in the first half of the 20th century, she was the odd one out in a field dominated by men. Despite her obvious talent and technical skills, and considerable success overseas and even at home, she was overlooked by the major galleries in Australia and eventually forgotten – that is until the 1970s when her work was ‘rediscovered’ and the National Gallery of Australia began to actively acquire her work. Art critic and academic, Sasha Grishin claims Jessie Traill is “one of the great Australian artists of the 20th century”, yet until recently, she was almost unknown to the general public.

Fortunately the retrospective exhibition Stars in the River: the prints of Jessie Traill reinstates Traill as a key figure in the history of Australian printmaking. The NGA exhibition has travelled around the country for over two and a half years and is now concluding here in Geelong. What better place for the exhibition to finish than at Geelong Gallery which is recognised for its significant print collection and well known for its acquisitive print awards.

This exhibition shows the breadth of Traill’s work – from the quiet stillness of the Australian bush to the noisy industry of large construction projects. Traill’s etchings of the Australian countryside are infused with soft ambient light and rich warm tones. Filtered sunlight dances through the tall gumtrees, gnarly melaleucas intertwine and overlap, a sweep of water glimmers in the distance. Employing printing techniques that broke with tradition, Traill achieves a wide range of tonal values which add subtlety and depth to her work. Her appreciation for the environment is obvious and in these poetic vistas rarely does the human figure (indigenous or otherwise) intrude upon the landscape.

Jessie Traill Good night in the gully where the white gums grow 1922 etching and aquatint, printed in brown ink, from one plate plate-mark 49.7 x 46.5cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1977 © Estate of Jessie Traill
Jessie Traill
Good night in the gully where the white gums grow 1922
etching and aquatint, printed in brown ink, from one plate
plate-mark 49.7 x 46.5cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1977
© Estate of Jessie Traill
Jessie Traill Evening Mallacoota, West 1924 etching and aquatint, printed in black ink with plate-tone plate-mark 15.2 x 55.0cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1983 © Estate of Jessie Traill
Jessie Traill
Evening Mallacoota, West 1924
etching and aquatint, printed in black ink with plate-tone
plate-mark 15.2 x 55.0cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1983
© Estate of Jessie Traill
Jessie Traill Stars in the river 1920 aquatint, printed in brown ink with plate-tone with scratched highlights plate-mark 16.4 x 10.2cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1977 © Estate of Jessie Traill
Jessie Traill
Stars in the river 1920
aquatint, printed in brown ink with plate-tone with scratched highlights
plate-mark 16.4 x 10.2cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1977
© Estate of Jessie Traill

Although Traill was a member of various naturalist groups, she did not let her sympathies for the environment interfere with her fascination for major engineering projects. She understood the vexed relationship between conservation and progress and could see the merits of both. A selection of prints in the exhibition feature industrial subjects, such as the Southern Electricity Commission plant in Yallourn (pictured below). Traill revels in the stark rhythmic lines of scaffolding and the repetition of vertical concrete pylons. Wires and cranes create interesting angles and negative shapes, and although this industrial architecture is still under construction, with Traill’s deft touch, it looks beautiful and monumental. 

Jessie Traill The big building, Yallourn, May 1924 etching, printed in black ink with plate-tone, from one plate plate-mark 33.0 x 28.5cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1979 © Estate of Jessie Traill
Jessie Traill
The big building, Yallourn, May 1924
etching, printed in black ink with plate-tone, from one plate
plate-mark 33.0 x 28.5cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1979
© Estate of Jessie Traill
Jessie Traill Building a tunnel, 'Genoa' 1927 etching, printed in brown ink with plate-tone and wiped highlights plate-mark 25.0 x 32.8cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1990 © Estate of Jessie Traill
Jessie Traill
Building a tunnel, ‘Genoa’ 1927
etching, printed in brown ink with plate-tone and wiped highlights
plate-mark 25.0 x 32.8cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1990
© Estate of Jessie Traill

It is Traill’s acclaimed series of etchings depicting the construction of Sydney Harbour Bridge from 1927 to 1931 for which she is most well known. This suite of six iconic etchings of crisscrossing iron girders marching across the sky are silhouetted against a soft muted background. She juxtaposed arching curves with angular lines to form bold and dynamic compositions. (Unfortunately only one of the Sydney Harbour Bridge series is included in this exhibition but there are other prints of the completed bridge. You can see the complete series on the Art Gallery of NSW website)

Jessie Traill Building the Harbour Bridge VI: Nearly complete, June 1931 1931 etching, printed in black ink with plate-tone, from one plate plate-mark 37.6 x 14.8cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1979 © Estate of Jessie Traill
Jessie Traill
Building the Harbour Bridge VI: Nearly complete, June 1931 1931
etching, printed in black ink with plate-tone, from one plate
plate-mark 37.6 x 14.8cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1979
© Estate of Jessie Traill

Traill was a daring innovator. Fearlessly independent she blazed her own trail. In the first half of the 20th century it was unusual for a woman to work in etching – perhaps it was considered too physical and dangerous. If women engaged in printmaking, it was generally with woodblocks and lino cuts. Not only did Traill work in etching but she broke with printing traditions: she used large zinc plates, she scored lines deeply into the ground and she explored rough biting and inking techniques. This she learnt from renegade printmaker Frank Brangwyn in the UK, who encouraged Traill to be bold in her approach and break free from the rigid aesthetic rules that prevailed at the time. His influence can also be seen in the complex compositions Traill employs and her gritty industrial subject matter. (Incidentally, Geelong Gallery recently acquired a Frank Brangwyn lithograph and it is currently on display in the Recent Acquisitions exhibition.)

What I love most about Traill’s work is the incredible tonal quality of her atmospheric and sometimes broody works. She achieves dramatic chiaroscuro with massed forms of darkness layered against lighter tones. Whether it is towering gums or concrete pylons, Traill’s sensitive yet confident rendering of light and form create masterful compositions which draw the viewer in. If you haven’t seen this exhibition, I urge you to go this week. After being on display for nearly three years, it is most likely these prints will be ‘rested’, away from the light for a while so this is probably our last chance to see these prints for some time. The exhibition closes Sunday 14 February. 

Jessie Traill Afternoon in Collins Street 1911 etching and aquatint, printed in black ink, from one plate plate-mark 28.2 x 38.0cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 2006 © Estate of Jessie Traill
Jessie Traill
Afternoon in Collins Street 1911
etching and aquatint, printed in black ink, from one plate
plate-mark 28.2 x 38.0cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 2006
© Estate of Jessie Traill
Jessie Traill From overseas 1913 etching and aquatint, printed in sepia ink, with plate-tone and wiped highlights plate-mark 30.2 x 48.6cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 2007 © Estate of Jessie Traill
Jessie Traill
From overseas 1913
etching and aquatint, printed in sepia ink, with plate-tone and wiped highlights
plate-mark 30.2 x 48.6cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 2007
© Estate of Jessie Traill

Stars in the River: the prints of Jessie Traill
Closes Sunday 14 February 2016
Geelong Gallery
55 Little Malop Street, Geelong
Open daily from 10am–5pm
Admission is free
www.geelonggallery.org.au

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