Visual Art

The biggest retrospective yet of Australian Modernist Clarice Beckett reveals an artist of elusive subtlety. By Tony Magnusson.

Clarice Beckett: The present moment

Tea gardens by Clarice Beckett.
Credit: Saul Steed

Wandering through Clarice Beckett: The present moment, one soon begins picking favourites from among the 130 misty reveries composed by the once forgotten, now acclaimed Australian Modernist painter.

A motorcyclist crests the hill of a quiet suburban street (Morning shadows, c.1932). A lone figure stands on a glassy beach, gazing at the sea as the tide goes out (Wet sand, Anglesea, 1929). On a wide and empty road lined with telegraph poles, two people in red prepare to pass each other, while in the distance further figures hover on the edge of formlessness (Walking home, c.1931).

This is the most comprehensive exhibition yet devoted to Beckett (1887-1935), and the first in more than two decades. It includes a hypnotic succession of pictures that are modest in size and subject matter, yet rich in atmosphere and feeling. Imbued with a powerful sense of temporal specificity – this moment – which speaks to the artist’s spiritually inclined sensibilities and swift painting practice en plein air, Beckett’s best works are those that accommodate movement within a field of eternal calm.

These compositions inspire questions in the mind of the viewer: who is the motorcyclist and where are they headed? Is the beachgoer having an epiphany, and if so, what is it? Will the two dressed in red acknowledge each other as they pass?

Interpretations differ. Early in curator Tracey Lock’s elevating exhibition, we are informed that Germaine Greer once devoted a two-hour lecture to Morning shadows, arguing the motorcyclist was “a housewife removing her clothes as she fled her suburban entrapment”.

Morning shadows was the first Beckett to be acquired by a state art gallery, when then-curator Ian North shepherded the work into the collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia in 1979. The gallery has since acquired 27 more, including, in 2019, 21 paintings from the private collection of Beckett scholar Dr Rosalind Hollinrake, who identified Lock as “the keeper of the Beckett flame”. All are on display, alongside 102 loans from 55 institutions and private collectors, including 12 from Russell Crowe. It represents quite the coup, given Beckett never travelled beyond her home state of Victoria.

Hollinrake shared her knowledge and archives with Lock as she planned the show, and the captivating outcome is a testament to both Hollinrake’s sustained determination in ensuring Beckett her rightful place in art history and Lock’s thorough and thoughtful curation. Following the course of a single day (“Sunrise” to “Nocturnes”), The present moment is infused with just enough whimsy to underscore Beckett’s biography and working methods.

The entrance is a circular antechamber with a 360-degree digital projection of details from Beckett paintings – a transitional space that attunes the visitor to the sensitivity of the artist’s eye. The show’s colour scheme includes radiant, ombré-like gradations, from lemon to sky blue and apricot to hot pink, pointing to Beckett’s facility in melting hues into one another, especially in her sunset and beach views. A playful peephole penetrating a wall between two rooms makes a star of the vibrantly off-kilter Tea gardens, c.1933, which demonstrates Beckett’s compositional daring in the manner of Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints as well as her versatility, here painting an inner-city street scene in the midday glare. The paintings are complemented by an enchanting soundscape by composer and violinist Simone Slattery.

Beckett would be lost to history were it not for Hollinrake, now 83, who rediscovered the artist in the late 1960s and rescued 369 paintings from an open-sided shed in rural Victoria, although about 1600 were damaged beyond repair. An unknown number of works were burnt by Beckett’s father after her death from double pneumonia at age 48, and a further 30 paintings destroyed in a house fire in 1945. The surviving oeuvre stands at about 600 paintings.

We know a little about her life and career. The middle of three children, Beckett received a good education, was musically literate and wrote prose and poetry. At 27 she studied drawing under Frederick McCubbin at the National Gallery School in Melbourne for three years before moving to maverick artist and teacher Max Meldrum’s rival school, where she soon mastered his theoretically driven painting method. In her catalogue essay, Lock notes that Beckett “quickly surpassed the formula, transforming it into her own singular and powerful Modernist style”.

She exhibited for 16 years, including yearly in solo shows between 1923 and 1933 at the Athenaeum Theatre, and her still lifes were “among her most admired works”. Although her paintings were appreciated “within a restricted circle”, she endured public ridicule and critical opprobrium for her “foggy” views and perceived affinities with Meldrum, although she only studied with him for nine months.

Tantalisingly, in 1931 Beckett was selected for inclusion in a group show by Australian artists in New York, prompting a New York Times critic to praise her ability to “[nourish] our imagination with a significant statement”. Although her paintings were never collected by a public art gallery in her lifetime, the year after her death, her younger sister Hilda bequeathed Castlemaine Art Museum Silver morning c.1931, a sublime, Whistler-inflected tone poem that’s included in this exhibition.

Beckett was attracted to inclement weather – especially mist, fog and haze – and to dawn and twilight, all the better to capture light at its most protean and fugitive. She built her own portable painting cart that she pushed for kilometres around the bayside suburbs, often returning to favourite spots. When meeting fellow artist friends at Café Latin on Exhibition Street, she would sometimes arrive late, “having captured in paint the last lighting effects of the day”.

Yet life wasn’t all rose-tinted sunsets. Beckett had a disabled older brother who died young. She fell for a man who wasn’t available. She was envied by her peers for the high esteem in which Meldrum held her as an artist. And as her parents aged, their needs became greater. Nursing her ailing mother from the end of 1932 until her death in 1934, just a year before Beckett’s own, she was free to paint only in the early morning and evening.

She also struggled to make her father, a bank manager, take her seriously. When she asked for a dedicated studio in the new family home in Beaumaris in 1919, he directed her to the kitchen table. The kitchen is resurrected at the exhibition’s halfway point, complete with lit-from-within table, full kitchen sink and sash window. Here is where she painted still lifes – there are seven on display – and turned colour notes and studies into finished works.

Beckett had a keen interest in Eastern, spiritual and theosophical literature and ideas; she also read Freud, Whitman, Thoreau and Yeats. The celebrated bookseller Gino Nibbi, proprietor of the Leonardo Art Shop on Little Collins Street, said she was “the best-read woman in Melbourne”, and her social milieu included free-thinking members of the Meldrum Group. She attended spiritualist meetings and subscribed to the Australian spiritualist magazine The Harbinger of Light.

With those influences and experiences in mind, Lock frames Beckett as a creatively autonomous artist who was negotiating spiritual currents similar to those working in the avant-garde of international Modernism, including Mondrian’s move towards abstraction and Kandinsky’s 1912 manifesto Concerning the spiritual in art. In her essay, she conducts a granular visual analysis of selected paintings to identify pictorial devices – the play of light, both unified and dissolving; the tension between horizontal and vertical forms; and the illusion of recessive space – that “can be associated with the spiritual philosophies underlying much of Modernist literature”. It’s a compelling, insightful argument that helps explain how the artist’s spacious, tonally unified paintings were composed and what they might have meant to her.

Clarice Beckett’s spiritual impulses and intense devotion to nature led her to create work that situates the mystical within the everyday. With her feathery technique and appetite for gestural abbreviation and broken form, she mastered what Lock terms “an optically indefinite blurred quality” that exploits tricks of cognitive perception, priming us to visually complete whatever is simplified, partial or missing. By engaging the generative potential of our perceptual experience, her paintings appear startlingly “real”, yet they retain a subtly elusive quality, as if just out of range, beyond the threshold, materialising through the mist only to retreat once again. 

 

Clarice Beckett: The present moment is at the Art Gallery of South Australia until May 16.

 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 20, 2021 as "Still point of the turning world".

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Tony Magnusson is a Sydney-based writer and curator.