I am at the end of a very brief encounter with Ikara-Flinders Range National Park and I would desperately love to be giving it more attention.
We have just spent the second of two full days staying at Wilpena Pound. Tomorrow we leave. The weather has been vile. Cold, rainy and blowing a gale. But, but, but … it’s breathtaking.
We have sketched from our car, all of the first day and some of our second day. But my biggest frustration with this experience is finding my own voice because I seem to be painting other people’s paintings.
Australians will have some familiarity with the work of watercolourist Albert Namatjira and possibly with photographer Harold Casneaux, whose image ‘Spirit of Endurance‘, was made only a short distance from where we are staying.
So when I start painting I see Namatjira’s work floating in front of me. It’s a challenge to paint with that over your head. However, the more I thought about it I realised that I should learn from those artists, before I worry about my own style.
WARNING this post contains a nude portrait. (It’s OK, it’s not me).
It seems there is a trend amongst my artist friends to be doing self portraits. So I am jumping in, along with Carol Haywood and Rose Davies to share my recent versions.
I started drawing myself in March and then quickly fell by the wayside. I recently got re-inspired by Jennifer Higgie’s book the Mirror and the Palette, looking at the herstory of the self-portrait.
The portraits of older women artists are often the most experimental. Perhaps the most visceral portrait I know is by Maria Lassnig, (1919- 2014), painted in her 80’s, it really sorts the women from the boys. I saw it in Amsterdam in 2019 and it certainly hit me in the gut.
Alice Neel has also painted an unapologetic nude self-portrait in her 80’s, which is on display in a current retrospective of her work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See here for a online veiwing of the exhibition.
You will probably be relieved to know that I don’t have the guts of Lassnig or Neel to do nude self-portraits. Maybe later. Maybe when I turn 80.
So here are the portraits I have made so far. Most, with the exception of the watercolour, have been sketched on paper roll from Ikea.
“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.
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.