Drawing the exhibition: Boticelli to Van Gogh – Part 1

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).

Mr and Mrs Thomas Colton, by Joseph Wright of Derby, c 1770-72

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.

Woman with a Fan, by Frans Hals, c.1640. The colour and black marker was added later as only pencil can be used in the Gallery.

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.

Frans Hals reboot and a cameo appearance by Rembrandt’s self-portrait aged 34.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where we meet the Duke and the Actress!

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.

Drawing the exhibition – Bodies of Art

Bodies of Art: Human form from the national collection, is currently on display in the downstairs sculpture rooms of the National Gallery of Australia. I spent the morning there quietly sketching away. The exhibition is a stimulating mix of sculpture, paintings, photography and video works which provided me with lots of interesting compositions to work on.

My first sketch was a grouping of stone sculptures, Torso, 1948 by Rosemary Madigan and Number 24, Harry Boyd by Robert Klippel and a third piece, an Anthropomorphic monument [gowe nio niha], (19th century or earlier) from the island of Nias in Indonesia. I was instantly drawn to the sandstone used in the two Australian works. The deep gougemarks on the Klippel sculpture acted like lines drawn across the surface. In contrast the smoother texture of Madigan’s work supported the subtlety of her torso’s carved planes.

Left to Right, Torso; Anthropomorphic Figure; Number 24, Harry Boyd, graphite with added watercolour

Behind me was an interesting juxtaposition of a hanging work by Giulio Paolini, Aria (Air), 1983 and beyond that, Triptych, 1970, by Francis Bacon.

Paolini’s work consists of two photographs of a renaissance sculpture sandwiched between perspex and hang from a steel cable. The work slowly gyrates beneath the high gallery ceiling, while underneath lies a piece of shattered glass. Behind it hangs Bacon’s equally fractured figures, curiously feeling much more grounded and solid than Paolini’s figure does.

Giulio Paolini, Aria (Air), 1983 and Francis Bacon, Triptych, 1970, pencil with added watercolour

While I drawing the partial elements of the Bacon triptych into this sketch, I became quite intrigued by the figures in the work’s central panel. After a restorative cup of coffee and some biscuits in the Member’s Lounge I returned to my final sketch of the day, the detail of the central panel.

There is certainly scope for more drawing here, so I will plan to make it back there soon.

All the sketching was done in the gallery and the watercolour was added afterwards.

Brett Whiteley – Drawing is Everything

This week we had a two hour window to see one exhibition in Sydney, before we had to catch our bus back to Canberra. So Brett Whiteley ‘Drawing is Everything’ was the unanimous choice.

Arriving early, before the gallery opened, I took the opportunity to sketch Gilbert Bayes PBRS sculpture ‘The Offerings of Peace’ (1923), from across the road. In honour, no doubt of my artistic endeavours, I was duly shat upon by Pied Currawong sitting in the tree overhead.

AGNSW

The Offerings of Peace, Gilbert Bays, PBRS, 1923

On entering the gallery we were immediately caught up in the vitality of Whiteley’s works, predominantly made with pen and ink and brush an ink. It was fascinating to see how Whiteley intensely studied the works of Van Gogh, Lloyd Rees and other artists as he developed his own style.

The gallery was encouraging visitors to draw while visiting the show, providing pencils and a small A4 folded piece of paper.

Whiteley2

Her‘, carvings in Mangrove wood, 1975 to c. 1980 (LHS); a quote by Whiteley “A good drawing (should be) loose, casual, abandoned, odd, wonky, immediate,swift, detached, +soaked in feeling, it should be brief, not just spare or simple, not just quick, It should be brief, beautifully brief, like the best Japanese art, like the soul’s shorthand.”

Luckily I also had my own paper as there were several other sketches I wanted to make.

whitely 1

After Brett Whiteley, Wendy Drunk, 1983, original, brush and black and brown ink. My version, pencil on paper.

It was intriguing to see how Whitely playfully amalgamated and created images, such as the following sketch of Matisse, putatively sitting in the Luxembourg Gardens, reading a newspaper.

After Brett Whiteley, Henri Matisse reading a newspaper in the Luxembourg Gardens, 1989 ink and brush. My version pencil on paper with watercolour added later.

Much as I enjoyed sketching in the gallery, the relative stiffness of the pencil sketches, compared to the brush works in particular, was underlined by a quote by Whiteley “Have you ever seen a pencil drawing that isn’t safe?” (p9, Brett Whiteley Drawings, Lou Klepac, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2014)

Brett Whiteley: Drawing is Everything
Art Gallery of New South Wales, on until 31 March 2019

Rome is your friend!

The latest ‘blockbuster’ exhibition at the National Museum of Australia is ‘Rome’, something of a novelty for those of us who live far away from the marching legions. The exhibition is from the collection of the British Museum.

Head of Faustina

Luckily for us the British Museum has packed up plenty of booty and sent it down under. The sculptures are the most impressive elements of the show. I was particularly intrigued by the decorative detail on the armour of Hadrian.

A view of the central section of the exhibition.

I had lots of fun trying to capture those details with my pencil. The watercolour background was added in while we were having lunch in the cafe.

My sketch of the statue of Hadrian.

A more poignant statue was a commemorative work of a woman holding a bust of her, presumably dead husband. A nice touch was a small figure at her left shoulder, which is carved like the end of a sofa (see the photo below), which concealed a vase for placing flowers.

Funary monument of a woman holding a bust.

I was interested to see that many of the pieces in the exhibition were excavated in the British Isles, which was a bit different from what I had expected. Many visitors were particularly taken by the coin hoardes and the legionary’s helmet.

Carved end of a sofa.

The fun will continue until 3 February 2019. Until then signs on our local roadways are reminding us that ‘all roads lead to Rome’.