April 2021

by Miriam Cosic

‘Clarice Beckett: The Present Moment’
This AGSA exhibition goes a long way to redress an Australian artist’s meagre reputation

Clarice Beckett, Wet day, Brighton, 1929. Oil on board. Gift of Alastair Hunter OAM and the late Tom Hunter in memory of Elizabeth through the AGSA Foundation.

Clarice 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.

The Present Moment exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia (until May 16) should go a long way to redressing that meagre reputation. It contains 130 paintings, each more evocative than the last.

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 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 at age 48.

Once Hollinrake got some of the remaining pictures out there, they soon won admirers. 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 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 bright pastel ball or swimsuits evoking the bright pleasures of summer. Curator Tracey Lock quotes that persisting phrase from Baudelaire, who saw modernity as “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent”.

The hang at AGSA 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. A beautiful, immersive experience.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

Cover of The Monthly, April 2021
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