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.

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.

Rodin sculptures cross country challenge

I have just been comparing sketches with Carol Haywood of our past sketches of Rodin sculptures.

I wrote about my experiences sketching at the Rodin Museum in Paris two years ago. You can see my sketches here.

If you would like to join in sharing your sketches of Rodin sculptures please do so and link in so we can all see them.

Before I go here is the one that I didn’t have time to sketch at the Art Gallery of South Australia when I visited recently.

August Rodin, Flying Figure, large version 1890-91, enlarged 1895?, bronze,
(cast George Rudier Foundry, Paris 1968)

Drawing the exhibition -Robert Hannaford 

On a visit to  Adelaide a week ago we saw the retrospective of the work of Robert Hannaford, a South Australian portraitist, at the Art Gallery of South Australia. It was fascinating to see what 50 years of work looked like, particularly the many self portraits Hannaford has made over that time. I also enjoyed seeing that he made the type of quick sketches in coffee shops and bars that many of us make, which are worthwhile in themselves.  

What did surprise me were two sculptures that were included in the show. His understanding of the figure in space I found to be even more compelling than his painted portraits. As I was with other people opportunities for sketching were limited.  I  sketched two versions of his bronze sculpture ‘Handstand’.

Rather wonky, but I couldn’t resist the dramatic shadow being cast by the left leg over the torso of the sculpture

You can find more of his work at his website

Art and the Beach

It’s rather embarrassing but I have just found this post from early February 2016 which I forgot to post, so somewhat belatedly, here it is.

I love visiting the city of Adelaide and a trip to the Art Gallery of South Australia is always on the ‘to do’ list. On this visit I wanted to see The Power of Pattern: the Ayako Mitsui Collection, which highlights kimonos and the stencils and techniques used to decorate fabric. While there I also took the time to do some drawings of some of the sculpture in the main gallery.

image

Statue of Eros, 1892-93, by Alfred Gilbert, new casting in aluminium, 1986-88; and Torso by Jean Broome-Norton, 1935, painted plaster. Pencil on grey-toned paper 5 February, 2016

After a bit of culture it’s also good to catch a bit of nature, in the form of one of Adelaides beaches. Saturday was near perfect beach-going weather with a clear sky and very little breeze. The water was crystal clear over a white sand bottom so visibility was excellent. After quite a bit of decadently floating around, my nephew and I started looking at the various things we could spot underwater. Apart from ‘the usual suspects’, seaweed and razor clam shells, we found a big chunk of smoothed bottle glass and somewhat unexpectedly a large piece of an old LP record. The latter had also clearly been in the water for quite some time so I couldn’t say exactly what music had been entertaining old Neptune.

image

Sea ‘treasures’, pecil on grey-toned paper, 6 February 2016