Clarice Beckett – The Present Moment

“roll up your catalogue and view each picture through it. … You will be rewarded with a wonderful suggestion of light and air and sufficient detail, and finish.” So said critic Percy Leason and  fellow student of Clarice Beckett (1887- 1935), of her 1931 solo exhibition *.

Tea Gardens, c.1933, oil on canvas on pulpboard, 51.0 cm x 43.7 cm

Clarice Beckett’s work, rather like the artist herself, can be difficult to pin down. Her life story of  is the stuff to make movies of and has inspired at least one novel (Night Street, by Kristel Thornell, joint winner of the 2009 Vogel Award).  Her work only entered public collections in Australia some 35 years after her death. The vast majority of her output has been lost to both accidental and deliberate destruction. (I have included a very brief bio of her at the end of this post).

This major retrospective at the Art Gallery of South Australia features 130 works by Beckett. I believe that this is the largest exhibition of her work ever shown.

Summer Fields, Naringal, 1926, oil on board, 24.5 cm x 34.5 cm

Clarice Beckett falls under the broad rubric of an Australian Modernist artist. Her control of light and atmospheric effects is equal to that of Turner. She references Whistler in her own painting titles, is frequently compared to Corot and her colour studies (such as still remain) are a precursor of Rothko’s. That pretty much ticks the boxes for me.

Beach Scene,  c. 1932-3, oil on canvas,
52.1 cm x 62.0 cm

The subject matter of the majority of Beckett’s extant work is of Beaumaris, a bayside suburb of the city of Melbourne and the city of Melbourne itself. 

The Bus Stop, c. 1930, oil on board,
41.0 cm x 34.0 cm

It strikes me that you could easily be misled by the deliberate simplicity of the composition of the paintings. Beckett’s  approach was a “technique of applying broad areas of finely graded tones produces an image that is slow to come to life”.*  While there is weight in the subject matter, this approach allows the focus of her painting to be on the light effects she observes.

Wet Sand, Anglesea, 1929, oil on board,
29.3 cm x 39.0 cm

In many works the subject matter is almost an abstracted form, such as Passing Trams, c 1931 and in others, such as Wet Night, Brighton, 1930, an exercise in geometry, and yet there is such intensity in her focus that the results transcend such easy charaterisations.

Passing Trams, c. 1931, oil on board,
48.6 cm x 44.2 cm
Wet Night, Brighton, 1930, oil on board,
26.6 cm x 38.0cm

Beckett made most of her paintings on location. She wheeled her hand cart with her supplies, walking around a 5 km radius of her house, or travelling into the city. Her paintings are quite small by today’s art extravaganzas, often no more than A3 size, so the intensity of her work is all the more focussed into these small works. I am apologetic as these photographs barely do justice to the intensity of the paint surface. I will share with you some detail shots so hopefully this may become a bit more apparent.

Dusk, c. 1928, oil on canvas on board, detail, 37.5 x 45.5 cm
Taxi Rank, c. 1931, oil on canvas on cardboard, detail, 58.5 x 51.0 cm

Per usual I took as many painting notes inside the exhibition as time permitted, alas never as much time as I would like. I also did some further studies of her work from the exhibition catalogue.

A page from my gallery sketchbook, focussed on Beckett’s use of high toned pink highlights.
A page from my gallery sketchbook. Looking at Beckett’s compositions.

Clarice Beckett: The Present Moment is currently on show in Adelaide at the Art Gallery of South Australia. The exhibition runs until 16 May 2021. The exhibition is ticketed, but there are no timed entry requirements.

  • All quotes in this post come from the exhibition catalogue The Present Moment: The Art of Clarice Beckett, Tracey Lock, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2020 ; p 104 quoting P. Leason, ‘Current art shows’, Table Talk, 5 December 1931, p14; p 104 Tracey Lock

Biography

Beckett, the eldest daughter of a rural bank manager, studied art at the National Gallery School in Melbourne with Fredrick McCubbin (1914-16) and also for a brief period under the tutelage of Tonalist painter Max Meldrum. Clarice regularly exhibited and her work gathered notice, among a small group of people and was recognised briefly, even as far afield as New York.  She exhibited with several groups and held solo exhibitions every year from1923 to 1933. But when she died from pneumonia at age 48 her work was largely forgotten.

After her death some of her work was deliberately  burnt by her father. Other major pieces from her time staying with friends in rural Victoria were lost in a house fire. The vast majority of her canvases were put in a shed in rural Victoria where they disintegrated under an onslaught of weather and vermin. The canvases were tracked down in 1970 by Dr Rosalind Hollingrake who had been searching for years to find out more about the work of one C. Beckett. Of those canvases some 369 were saved and 1600 were beyond retrieval.

Beckett’s work was never acquired by a public gallery in her lifetime. Her works first entered the National Gallery of Australia in 1971, after Hollingrake showed the work at her gallery in Melbourne.

20 Comments

    1. She is a fascinating figure indeed. Sadly, despite interviews with her family, curators and art historians have not found much documentation of her work. No exhibition catalogues for her solo shows have been found and virtually nothing from her directly about her work or what she was trying to achieve.

      There has been some corrections to the assumption that her family stopped her from painting. It turns out that she did have a regular stipend from her father and she did go and paint when she was able. The main difficulties appeared to be needing to shoulder more domestic duties after her father retired and there wasn’t hired household help. A well-known book shop owner in the city of Melbourne said that she was probably the most widely read woman that he knew. So intellectually she wasn’t being constrained.

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  1. Fascinating introduction (for me) to the life and work of an amazing creative. The tragedy of the fate of her output, during both her life and after, is horrific. But all too real. What is shown here convinces me of her genius completely. Thanks to you for your research and publication of art that calls out to be known and appreciated. Thank you!

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    1. Please do. It has taken so long for her work to be recognised even here in Australia. PS bonus celebrity boost, the actor Russell Crowe lent 14 paintings from his collection for the show.

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  2. Wow. Her work shimmers. And it’s so mysterious even in very everyday scenes. And then that so much of her work was destroyed by neglect. Somehow that’s worse to me than deliberately – it’s that sense of not mattering enough to be remembered. A heartbreaking story, but her work is living now. Thanks for this post.

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    1. Yes the neglect aspect is particularly distressing. I think it was a family member that was responsible for the storage. It’s impossible to know if they really didn’t care or they just wanted it to be out of sight out of mind. It’s all our loss.

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      1. Oops. Getting these works, even through photographs. The exhibition was organised as a passage through a day starting in the morning and ending at night. The wall colours varied throughout the show and really worked to support the art.

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  3. It is quite a story isn’t it? I came across her work a few years ago, there was an exhibition at the SH Ervin Gallery in Sydney, and I’ve loved it from then on, the understated nature and those wonderful chalky colours that say so much. Shows the power of just doggedly doing what your heart tells you to for years. Wonderful to know at least some of her work has been salvaged.

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    1. I saw Misty Moderns which came to the NGA, but the power of having so many of her works together is hard to describe. It’s sort of a gut feeling, possibly even a “vibe” πŸ˜‰

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