Of girders and gum trees

April 16, 2013 § 2 Comments

Jessie Traill, Stars in the river (1920)

Jessie Traill, Stars in the river (1920)

Travel is definitely one of the perks of my job, but I must admit I never dreamed it would take me all the way to Australia.

A week ago, all I knew about Australian art would have fit on the head of a pin (and would probably have left a fair bit of room for angels to dance on). So, given that my business was at the National Gallery of Australia, I was looking forward to being enlightened. What I hadn’t counted on was discovering a printmaker whose work would have been remarkable anywhere.

Jessie Traill, Under the bridge (1912)

Jessie Traill, Under the bridge (1912)

Jessie Traill was born in a suburb of Melbourne in 1881 but was a restless wanderer, hopping from Australia to England, France, Belgium and the Netherlands and back again. She painted and drew, but it’s for her prints that she is now best known. Between her innovative technique (she worked with equal ease in etching, aquatint, drypoint and mezzotint), the dreamlike cityscapes at which she excelled, and her cosmopolitanism, I think it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that if Whistler had been reborn as an Australian woman, he’d have been Jessie Traill.

Jessie Traill, The great arch (1932)

Jessie Traill, The great arch (1932)

Or maybe not. Like Whistler, Traill was a poet of the city – her series charting the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge is the best-known example, but I was equally taken with her haunting views of the Newcastle skyline during a blackout.

Jessie Traill, Black out (1940)

Jessie Traill, Black out (1940)

Unlike Whistler, however, she was just as much at home in the bush, among the trees or on the bank of a river seemingly untouched by human presence.

Jessie Traill, Good night in the gully where the white gums grow (1922)

Jessie Traill, Good night in the gully where the white gums grow (1922) 

Stars in the river: the prints of Jessie Traill is on until 23 June. For those of you who can’t make it to Canberra, the exhibition website has images of all the prints in the show – not quite the same as seeing them in person, but a fine introduction to a printmaker who deserves to be better known abroad.

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