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.

Kambah Sheep Christmas 2020

For many years now, at least 10 years, people have been anonymously decorating the sheep sculptures that celebrate this suburbs past history as a farm. Good taste never comes into it and apart from a father and small child I once saw adding a few pieces, I have never seen who does this.

I posted this on my ‘other’ blog (largely gardening and food), which was for many years the only blog I had, but I think this is something that my art friends will enjoy as well.

https://votedwithourforks.wordpress.com/2020/12/27/kambah-sheep-christmas-2020/

Artists – Women, Art Gallery of South Australia

It’s a big year for women artists with the National Gallery of Australia showing, rather belatedly, a program featuring women artists called Know My Name. Works have been borrowed from around the country for the exhibition.

National Gallery of Australia
25.48% women represented (down from 27.12%)
72.97% men (up from 68.68%)
No data on non-binary artists recorded

The Countess Report 2019*

Meanwhile in other parts of the country State galleries are also turning their collective eyes to the work of female artists both within and outside of their collections. During a recent visit to Adelaide I took a look at the Art Gallery of South Australia’s offerings.

State galleries and museums continue to significantly under-represent
women in their collections and exhibitions.

In State galleries and museums the representation of women decreased
from 36.9% to 33.9% from 2016 to today.

The Countess Report 2019*


Leading the way in S.A. is this year’s Tarnanthi 2020: Open Hands exhibition, which is all by women artists


1. Warwiriya Burton, (born 1925), Pitjantjatjara people, Ngayuku ngura (My Country), 2018 synthetic polymer pigment on linen.
2. Warwiriya Burton, detail of No. 1

Warwiriya Burton, (born 1925), Pitjantjatjara people, Ngayuku ngura (My Country), 2018 synthetic polymer pigment on linen.
Detail of above.


3. Iluwanti Ken, (born c.1944) Pitjantjatjara people, 2030, Walawulu ngunytju kukaku ananyi (Mother eagles going hunting), pigmented ink on paper.

4. Iluwanti Ken, detail of No. 3

In the Chromotopia exhibition:


5. Naomi Hobson, (born 1978), Southern Kaantju/Umpila people, Touch the River Floor, 2019, synthetic polymer on linen.

Naomi Hobson


6. Virginia Cuppaidge, (born 1943), Second Transition, 1974

Virginia Cuppaidge


7. Annabelle Follett, (1955-2019), UN Knitted Forms, 2000, wool and plastic knitting needles

Annabelle Follett

Elsewhere in the gallery:

8. Dora Chapman (1912-1995), Head Studies, partial image, 1969 and 1970, gouache and polymer paint on board

Dora Chapman


9. Top, Grace Crowley (1890-1979), Abstract Painting, 1953, oil on hardboard;
Below, Dora Chapman (1912-1995), Abstract, 1943, synthetic polymer paint on board.

Grace Crowley
Dora Chapman


10. Bessie Davidson, (1879-1965), Artist’s paintbox with French coastal landscape, c. 1930 Guéthary, France, oil on wood panel in wooden artist box

Bessie Davidson

My completely subjective view is that the work of women artists is definitely more visible in the galleries that I have visited this year. But 25% National Gallery of Australia???

* The Countess Report

The Countess Report is Amy Prcevich, Elvis Richardson and Miranda Samuels.

They are an independent artist run initiative that publishes data on gender representation in the Australian contemporary art world. They believe a focus on gender is a focus on power.
Countess works in the legacy of institutional critique and research based conceptual art practices. Their goal is to inform and influence systemic change through data collection and analysis.
While their evidence is often cited, they are not data analysts. They are artists and activists who are interested in investigating dynamics of power, value, labour, and collecting through the lens of gender.
The work of Countess is both art and advocacy.

Loving your local tree

Artist Rebecca Mayo has launched a collaborative art program examining “the role of trees during uncertain times”. Participants are being invited to take a rubbing of their favourite local tree. She asks “Has this slower paced, looped walking (where we set off to get out of the house, rather than to reach a physical destination) allowed us to pay a new kind of attention to our neighbourhoods and what grows there?”

I received my kit last week and took advantage of the relatively windless conditions to take a rubbing of my favourite tree. In this case one of the remnant Eucalyptus melliodora (Yellow Box), that started life on Ngunnawal land (before European colonisation), survived pastoralism and having a suburb and an oval built around it. We guesstimate that the trunk is more than 3 metres in circumference (I forgot to measure the rubbing before I sent it off).

I had some help with friends to hold the paper as I  circumnavigated the tree’s large circumference. 

We also had some discussions with passers by who were happy to share their thoughts on this tree with us.

The rubbings will form the basis of an exhibition by Rebecca to be held at the Tuggeranong Arts Centre in 2021.

Up close to Rembrandt

(Quite a long post)

2019 marked the 350th anniversary of the death of Rembrandt. Both the Rijksmuseum and at the Mauritshuis (Den Haag) were showing all their Rembrandt’s in special exhibitions. So we couldn’t miss this opportunity.

The one painting that I couldn’t get up close and personal with at the Rijksmuseum was The Night Watch, which was being digitally scanned when we were there. By complete coincidence the Rijksmuseum has just released that very digitised image this week. You can super zoom in on the image and watch as it gets more and more detailed as you look.

Nightwatch

The Night Watch (more correctly,  if long-windedly, called Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642

Most of these photos are from the Rijksmuseum and you will have to bear with the fact that some of them were taken from rakish angles as I attempted to get shots without the milling museum hordes.

Here we go! Rembrandt’s only full length portraits of a couple, Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit, were painted in 1634. The subject of the portraits is as much about the wealth of the couple, as it is the sitters. The refined painted surface shows all the details of the elaborate lace, silver filigree and silk that the couple are wearing. Marten was an up-and-comer, whose father had moved to Amsterdam from Antwerp and made his fortune running a sugar refinery, and Oopjen was the daughter of an established Amsterdam family, 

rembrandt2a

Portrait of Marten Soolmans, 1634

rembrandt2b

Detail from the Portrait of Marten Soolmans, 1634. Just look at the detail in the wrinkle of the silk stocking, not to mention the woven pattern visible in the stocking of Marten’s left calf. The filigree work and punched holes in the shoes are astounding.

rembrandt3

Portrait of Oopjen Coppit, 1664, who married Marten Soolmans in 1633. She was pregnant with her first child when the painting was carried out.

rembrandt3a

Detail of the portrait of Oopjen Coppit, showing not only her pearls, but also the exquisite lace of her cuff and the fine silk of her dress.

Far and away my favourite ‘couple’ portrait by Rembrandt is this un-named man and woman, who chose to have themselves painted as the Biblical couple Isaac and Rebecca. This painting is often referred to as ‘The Jewish Bride’. The tenderness and warmth of their relationship is on show for all to see.

Rembrandt1b

Issac and Rebecca or The Jewish Bride, 1665-69

Rembrandt1a

Detail from Isaac and Rebecca or The Jewish Bride, 1665-69

In comparison to the previous two portraits Rembrandt used thick impasto paint and a palette knife on this work to give a more textured feel to the finished painting, though the details of the dress are in reality no less sumptuous than those of the previous works.

The Mauritshuis, situated in the Hague (Den Haag), was relatively quiet compared to the Rijksmuseum and it was definitely worth visiting. When I checked I realised that I took very few photos in the gallery.  I think that was because I was looking and sketching the Rembrandt portraits instead.

I am so pleased that I did take a photo of this poignant painting of King Saul, listening to the young David playing his harp.

rembrandt4

King Saul , a detail from Saul and David, 1651-54 and 1655-58

You can see my sketch of this on the lower right corner of the page below, along with the other self-portraits of Rembrandt, both as a young man and an old one.Rempage

Even now I get a thrill just remembering the chance we had to see all these amazing works.

And just because we are there already I will share with you a bonus shot of that other famous inhabitant of the Mauritshuis, Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring.

vermeer

The Girl with the Pearl Earring, Jan Vermeer, 1665, and a few admirers.