Inside Story

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1262 words

A larger purpose, a larger sense of self

28 April 2013

Janine Burke on the lives of two painters whose travels shaped their lives and their art

Right:

Hilda Rix Nicholas’s Men in the Marketplace, Tangier (1914). Rix Wright Collection

Hilda Rix Nicholas’s Men in the Marketplace, Tangier (1914). Rix Wright Collection

Stars in the River: The Prints of Jessie Traill
Edited by Roger Butler | National Gallery of Australia | $49.95

Hilda Rix Nicholas and Elsie Rix’s Moroccan Idyll: Art and Orientalism
By Jeanette Hoorn | Miegunyah Press | $39.95


For Australian artists, travel is not only valuable but a crucial means of becoming acquainted with the great collections in London, Paris or other major centres. Few Australian artists – Joy Hester springs to mind – have created significant work without leaving the country. For women artists, travel has also meant an escape from the prejudices and restrictions of gender that operated within their own society. With travel came a larger purpose, and a larger sense of self.

For Jessie Traill and Hilda Rix Nicholas, travel became more than a rite of artistic passage: it was a peripatetic urge that shaped their lives. Traill, in particular, never stopped, her name becoming the symbol of her life and journeying. To set off for Central Australia by car in 1928 (when she was forty-seven) was no mean feat, and she continued to make regular trips to England into her eighties. She was so well-known in the village of Alnwick in Northumberland that she was regarded as a local.

Born in 1881 and 1884 respectively, these restless women both lost their fathers in their twenties. In 1906, as the Rix family (sisters Hilda and Elsie, mother Elizabeth and father Henry) were planning their first journey together to London, Henry contracted cardiac problems, and died. Their financial circumstances somewhat reduced, the women set off regardless. In 1907, while Traill was in Rome with her father Hamilton and sister Minna, Hamilton suddenly passed away. Jessie did not return to Australia but instead settled in London, where she studied with the artist and printmaker Frank Brangwyn, and set the course for her career. The loss of the father – which, fortunately for both young artists, did not mean a dire loss of income – triggered the decision to commit themselves to lives as professional artists. Perhaps it also set them free.

Money and fathers played an enormous role in the destiny of women artists in the first half of the twentieth century. If Daddy didn’t want his daughter to study art, there was little chance that she could. For middle-class young ladies, art was regarded as a charming feminine accomplishment, like singing or playing the piano nicely, that could take its place decorating her father’s, and later her husband’s, home. It was virtually impossible, however, for a working-class girl to aspire to the artist’s life, to the long years of study and travel abroad, the relentless round of exhibiting and the cost of renting a studio. If a working-class girl wished to embrace la vie bohème, she could become an artist’s model, but they were considered to be little more than prostitutes.

Though both Traill and Rix Nicholas continued to regard Australia as home, both spent years away, and weathered the first world war (and in Traill’s case, the second) in England. Their paths were almost identical at different points, but there’s no evidence to suggest that the paths of these two very different personalities crossed. Traill was reserved, pious and hardy; Rix Nicholas was bold, bubbly and impetuous. Both lived large lives in terms of travel and ambition, but Traill chose a reclusive domestic life with her sisters – she never married – while Rix Nicholas contrived life as a stage for herself and her work, a place where she could star.

It was an approach that served Rix Nicholas well in Tangier. A European woman artist alone, sketching in the marketplace, was nothing short of astounding to the locals, especially as this was an Islamic society where image-making was forbidden. While that made it difficult for Rix Nicholas to find models, especially among women who were usually veiled, the intrepid artist nevertheless managed to “pot” subjects, even if it meant making composite portraits from several different people. Once the locals caught Rix Nicholas observing them with an eye to sketching, they disappeared into the crowd. But she persisted, smartly moving off if she sensed she was causing offence or irritation. She had her admirers, too, and folk crowded about to watch as she drew, and congratulated her on her efforts. Indeed, the crowds became so enthusiastic that Elsie appointed herself as Hilda’s guardian.

The colour and clarity of Rix Nicholas’s work, the pleasure she takes in sunlight, her palette of delicious blues and whites, her picturesque settings and North African “types” could not be more different from Traill’s sombre, sepia-toned etchings of landscapes natural and built, where a face is rarely glimpsed let alone a personality gauged.

Against type: Jessie Traill’s The Red Light, Harbour Bridge, June 1931. National Gallery of Australia

Traill studied with Frank Brangwyn in order to develop her skills as a printmaker. Until then her work had been mediocre, but the larger-than-life Brangwyn – painter, muralist and designer of interiors and furniture, a man both prodigiously energetic and irascible – inspired her to do better. For her part, Traill seems to have won him over. When, exhausted, he resigned his teaching activities, she continued to work at his home studio.

Brangwyn’s etchings, unusually large for that time, took as their subject architectural forms cast in dramatic shadow. Traill followed suit. The influence of Brangwyn’s style and subject matter, though not his scale, can be seen, for example, in Traill’s many etchings of the Sydney Harbour Bridge under construction. As curator Macushla Robinson has written, Traill “rarely portrayed the interior scenes and still lifes that were considered acceptable subject matter for women at the time.” Against type, Traill favoured big, heavy, “masculine” subjects. But her prints are often so dark, it is hard to make them out. Why the gloom?

Perhaps the answer lies in the status of her chosen medium. At the Art Gallery of NSW’s recent exhibition of key works by the brilliant and influential American photographer Alfred Steiglitz, I was surprised to find that many of the prints were tiny and dark. In fact, all I could see when I gazed at them was my own reflection. These were Steiglitz’s original prints; in reproduction, they are bigger, clearer and more commanding. Like Traill’s prints, they come from a period when photography and printmaking were regarded as secondary art forms, inferior to the great art of painting. Both media sought to emulate painting’s effects – especially “painterly” effects, such as shadow – in an effort to gain credibility as the equal of painting, and both “went dark” as a result. Traill’s darkness is used to effect in her architectural studies – the buildings loom, and even threaten – but it is in her studies of nature that the perpetual twilight is truly haunting.

These are handsome books. Stars in the River is beautifully produced and printed on luscious creamy paper. From Roger Butler’s introduction, we learn that this project has been a long labour of love. Butler has made an enormous contribution to Australian printmaking as a curator at the National Gallery of Australia, and before that, when he ran a private gallery in the 1970s. He was the first to promote many women printmakers, including Margaret Preston and Thea Proctor, who have gone on to become legends of Australian art and whose prints gain high prices at auction.

Moroccan Idyll is also a lovely object. The designers have opted for a small paperback format, comparable in size to a paperback novel, and have illustrated it richly with paintings, drawings, photographs and letters. While comparing Rix Nicholas’s work with that of Matisse may not do the former any favours, including Matisse’s masterpieces in the book creates a texture redolent of North African colours, space and light. •

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Right:

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Photo: Imperial War Museum