Although I have seen Clarice Beckett’s paintings many times, singly or a few at a time, and very much liked them, and although I have long considered her undervalued, the major exhibition of her work at the Art Gallery of South Australia (until May 16) is a revelation.
Called The Present Moment, it contains 130 paintings, each more evocative than the last. The hang is airy and uncrowded, and backed by a soundtrack of soft solo violin and everyday Melbourne noises, from birdsong to the clang of trams and the peal of their bells, created by violinist and composer Simone Slattery. I had to see it more than once while I was in Adelaide.
Beckett’s special take on Modernism – moody, soft focus, minimal, and a unique amalgam of realism and abstraction – puts her in the pantheon of great and innovative Australian painters. Both her sex and a life worthy of a Brontë novel prevented that elevation, however.
When her greatest posthumous promoter, the art historian and curator Rosalind Hollinrake, finally mounted an exhibition of her work in 1971, 36 years after the artist’s death, The Age’s celebrated critic Patrick McCaughey praised Beckett as “a remarkable modernist” – he was the first to name her so – and every bit as good as Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith. Very good, in other words, for a woman.
Beckett was born in 1887, in the Victorian country town of Casterton, close to the border with South Australia, where her father was a bank manager. She was later a boarder at Queen’s College (now Ballarat Grammar), and it was there she first showed artistic talent. She didn’t enrol at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School, in Melbourne, until she was 27, leaving after three years under Frederick McCubbin to study with the controversial tonalist Max Meldrum. Although she was never a true disciple, his ideas continued to influence her, and her artistic link with his name did her no favours while she was still alive.
She never married and moved to the Melbourne suburb of Beaumaris with her family in 1919, painting most of her oeuvre there. Her father refused to take her art seriously and told her she could work on the kitchen table when she asked for a studio. He burned a number of her canvases after her premature death.
As her parents aged, Beckett spent a good part of her time looking after them, which is why her plein-air paintings contain so many situated at dawn or dusk. But it was she who died first, of double pneumonia, in 1935 when she was only 48. Though she had had some success in group exhibitions, what was left of her work (that wasn’t burnt by her father or in an accidental house fire elsewhere) was dispersed. When Hollinrake met Beckett’s sister in the late 1960s, she learnt about a cache of around 2000 paintings in an old shed in country Victoria. Some were beyond repair; others became Hollinrake’s life’s work. She managed to salvage 369 canvases.
Once Hollinrake got some of the remaining pictures out there, they soon received the imprimatur of the famous painter Fred Williams, and, following his advice, director James Mollison bought some for the new National Gallery of Australia. A few years later, AGSA curator Ian North bought one for his gallery. The paintings soon won even more admirers and the hunt was on. Many ended up in private collections: last year, the philanthropist Alastair Hunter donated 21 paintings to AGSA, which prompted plans for this show, and the actor Russell Crowe owns a few, which he has lent to the exhibition.
The show’s catalogue, written by curator Tracey Lock, begins with a telling epigraph from the artist: “[My aim is] to give a sincere and truthful representation of a portion of the beauty of Nature, and to show the charm of light and shade, which I try and set forth in correct tones so as to give nearly as possible an exact illusion of reality.”
The pictures in The Present Moment are simply beautiful and beautifully simple. Beckett never made preliminary sketches. She preferred to paint what she saw quickly and directly, often through half-closed eyes that reduced the detail. She applied oils sparingly, feathering and blending them to intensify opaqueness and translucence. Her landscapes are reduced to emblematic subjects in ghostly backdrops. A tree is a field of flat dark green with one or two branches sufficing. A bayside view is a few boats on grey water merging with an overcast sky. A beach scene is a spread of sand-coloured background with a dark pastel ball or swimsuits evoking the bright pleasures of summer. Lock quotes that persisting phrase from Baudelaire, who saw modernity as “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent”.
The sunrise scenes are monochromatically light, while the sunset scenes lead into monochromatic darkness. Moons loom, night lights are reflected in water. Everyday urban objects such as lampposts, telephone wires and the official red of hazmat signs take on a talismanic significance. Beckett seemed to seek out mist, rain and smoke – elements that naturally created the tonalities and even the spiritualism she sought to portray.
Despite the similarity of her works, they don’t fade into repetition. Her canvases are instantly recognisable, but each has something unique to say. Some of the paintings evoke a sterner solidity through deeper colour or more involved content. A series of paintings of beach houses anchor them in the sand. Boatshed, Beaumaris (1928) uses brighter blues, greens and yellows for water, sky and vegetation. Collins Street, evening (1931) shows smudgy figures and lights in the background, and a slightly clearer black vehicle and grey tree in the foreground. Warm summer evening (c.1928) paints the last hot pinks in the darkening sky and a dozen people strolling along the beach and searching the sand. Evening landscape (1925) captures a later, deeper range of sunset colours backing a foreground that is already almost indiscernible.
Most beautiful to me are those minimal paintings in which the focal point is on a rising sun or moon, indistinct balls of light with deep emotional content. Sunset on the Bay (undated) and Saturday (also undated) both show Beckett’s predilection for a few twisted trunks, some foliage in fading grey-green, and expanses of grey water reflecting the light of a rising orb. Their composition, however, is quite different. Mist (c. 1923), Wet evening (c. 1927) and October morning (c. 1927) couldn’t be more different in mood and in their use of colour, shadow and reflected light, yet are unmistakeably from the same hand.
Since seeing the Beckett exhibition, I have found my view of the Australian countryside transformed. Driving from Sydney to Canberra recently, I noticed the gnarled trunks and the asymmetric branches, the morphing shapes and colours. I noticed the greenery and the flowers after the yellow-dry grasses of 18 months ago, the swathes of pale trunks and branches followed by the blackness where trees are still recovering from last year’s bushfires. It is rare that an artist’s view of the world can so alter one’s own.
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