As I walked into the large room, people moving in front of me, I looked up and saw ‘The Duke’. Our eyes met, a shiver ran down my spine. OMG! IT’S A GOYA!!!
If you are wondering about my delirium over this work, apart from the fact that it’s just a bloody marvellous painting, it’s because paintings by Goya rarely make it to our shores. I did a quick check and the only Goyas permanently in Oz are of Goya’s Los Caprichos series of etchings.
I was also surprised as nowhere in the pre-publicity for this exhibition did I see a mention of a Goya, nor Vermeer or Velasquez, all of whose works were in the show.
Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington, (1769-1852) was arguably the leading military (and political) figure of the 19th century in the United Kingdom. His most prominent victory was the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo alongside the Prussian army under Generalfeldmarchal Blücher.
As this was my second visit to the exhibition (see my previous post here) I decided to prepare my page with a splash of red paint. This reflects the colour of the Duke’s uniform, but I wasn’t trying to be literal about painting it.
I also chose to do a closer study of the lower part of the face. By this time I had realised that trying to replicate the fine modelling of the oil paint was more than my pencil could manage.
The actress of the title is Mrs Siddons (Sarah Siddons, nee Kemble, 1755-1831). A famous tradegienne she was renowned for her portrayal of Lady Macbeth and Isabella from Isabella, or The Fatal Marriage by Thomas Sotherne. As an interesting aside, Siddons also played the role of Hamlet on numerous occasions over a 30 year period.
The portrait of Siddons in the exhibition is by Sir Thomas Gainsborough (she was also painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Thomas Lawrence whose work is also included in this exhibition). Her head is shown in profile with her powdered wig and her dramatically large hat framing her face.
William Hazlitt said of Sarah Siddons “Tragedy personified … to have seen Mrs Siddons was an event in everybody’s life.”
The final grace note was to find out, via Wikipedia, that the Duke and Mrs Siddons were acquainted, as the Duke attended some of Mrs Siddons receptions.
From March to June 2021 the National Gallery of Australia is hosting a raft of paintings, including many masterpieces from the National Gallery, London,in the Boticelli to Van Gogh exhibition. I have to say masterpieces because there is not a single work by a female artist is included in this show! Really? Yes, the National Gallery London is a very blokey affair, although I would have been happy to see their works by Rosalba Carriera, Artemesia Gentilleschi, Rosa Bonheur or Berthe Morisot. Rather ironic as the Know My Name exhibition of women artists is taking up almost all of the rest of the main floor of the gallery at present.
I have purchased a season ticket that allows me to visit the exhibition as many times as I can. My first post focused on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers 1888, but I must admit I have spent a lot more time looking elsewhere in the exhibition.
By drawing my way through the exhibition I can spend time looking closely at the paintings trying to learn what I can by copying. Though the reality is that a pencil (the only drawing tool allowed in the Gallery), is not always the right tool to capture a finely wrought portrait.
My first sketches included Joseph Wright of Derby’s double portrait of Mr and Mrs Thomas (Mary Barlow) Coltman, c. 1770-72 (NG6496) and Frans Hal’s Portrait of a Woman with a Fan, c. 1640 (NG 2529).
The Coltman’s were painted in a ‘conversation piece’ portrait, which was a popular convention of the time, showing the couple in a charmingly relaxed pose, (something that the Curator Susan Foister notes that would have required quite some forethought on Wright’s part). It is a portrait of ease and nicely observed detail, including Mary’s horse with it’s ears back, because their spaniel (not in my sketch) is nipping at it.
Alas my sketch of the Woman with a Fan was rather less successful. I have turned the sitter from a young woman into a middle-aged version of herself! The figure itself and dress with the lace collar and cuffs I am quite happy with.
I made a somewhat better go of this work the next time I visited. At least there is some vague resemblance in this version, although she still looks much older than she does in Hal’s portrait.
Stay tuned for Part 2, where we meet the Duke and the Actress!
“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 *.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
The first big ‘block-buster’ exhibition, since the pandemic started, has made it to the National Gallery of Australia earlier this month. Called Boticelli to Van Gogh, it is a rare sharing of paintings from the National Gallery, London, of some of their most precious works.
Not surprisingly the gallery marketing team are really banging on about the Van Gogh Sunflower painting. It is a star. But there are so many others as well.
So here are some shots so you can get up close and personal, even if you can’t make the show itself.
You often hear writers talking about how characters in their novels develop a life of their own during the writing process. That I can understand. What has surprised me is that a piece of cloth I am currently stitching is exhibiting the same tendency.
After my exhibition in September 2020, I remembered some advice from a fellow artist, that to lessen the post-exhibition low he always painted a yellow painting. Good I thought, I have an old yellow microfibre cloth I can stitch on.
I had visions of all the shades of yellow blending harmoniously together …. the cloth had other ideas.
I learned quickly that this faded and pre-loved cloth had an amazing ability to absorb almost all varieties of yellow. It could suck in sunshine yellow, daisy yellow, and some tones disappeared into it’s surface completely. Apart from contrasting threads, the only thread to boldly resist this challenging cloth is an equally recalcitrant hi-vis yellow stranded thread I bought on a whim some months ago.
20 JANUARY 2021 – Still a work in progress. My post-exhibition piece started last year, de-railed by Christmas and other projects. So much stitching even in a piece 39 x 39 cm. And the back, more gloriously feral than ever, when I realised that the hi-vis threads were too slippery to stay firmly attached without additional stitching. So lots of ripping back and re-sewing.
8 FEBRUARY 2021 – At last the end has been reached! The final lines of hi-vis yellow are in and I even stitched my name onto it. Resistant to the last it has developed a belly in the middle and refuses to sit flat.
Various salvaged, donated and bought embroidery threads on found microfibre cloth.