On a rainy day in Sydney it feels completely appropriate to be writing about Clarice Beckett. She was an artist for whom the ideal atmospheric conditions were overcast, a bit misty. Her work is all about the weather. As a subject it couldn’t be more commonplace but it transports us into a realm of indistinct forms that haunt the imagination. It’s not often I feel the urge to visit the same show on three successive days, but Clarice Beckett: The Present Moment at the Art Gallery of South Australia, is one of those rare, inexhaustible exhibitions.
We’ve had periodic glimpses of Beckett’s talent since 1971, shortly after she was rescued for posterity by Rosalind Hollinrake. There was a touring show in 1999 when the venues included Sydney’s S.H.Ervin Gallery. The present survey, the largest ever devoted to the artist, will be seen only in South Australia – which is an excellent reason to consider Adelaide if you’re itching to get back on a plane soon.
The facts of Beckett’s life may be told in short order. She was born in 1887 into a well-heeled, middle-class family. She had a passion for art and literature, and would go on to study drawing under Fred McCubbin at the National Gallery School, then spend 9 months attending the independent art school run by the outspoken Max Meldrum. It was an experience that would help mould her technique and views on art, although not so much as many have presumed. Although Clarice had admirers she turned down several offers of marriage and would end her life living at home in the bayside suburb of Beaumaris, having spent years looking after her invalid mother.
In 1935, shortly after her mother’s death, Beckett caught double pneumonia and passed away at the age of 48. What happened next is just as tragic, as her father burnt paintings that he didn’t consider finished or good enough. Her sister, Hilda, would store the remaining 2,000 canvases in an open sided shed in the countryside near Benalla. When Hollinrake tracked them down in 1970 only 369 were salvageable. The weather and the possums had laid waste to the rest.
The loss of so many works ranks as one of the great disasters of Australian art history. We may all be thankful that Hollinrake saved what she could.
I’m wary of hyperbole and reluctant to play that game of declaring any artist to be “the best”, but for me this retrospective of what remains of Clarice Beckett’s work has propelled her way ahead of more celebrated painters such as Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith. Beckett has been dismissed as another “Meldrumite”, but neither Max Meldrum nor any of his tonalist disciples ever painted anything as poignant as the work in this exhibition.
Curator, Tracey Lock, who has approached this project as a labour of love, seeks to lift Beckett out of the small world of Melbourne tonalism and reposition her as a painter who explored the spiritual dimension of Modernism, alongside artists such as Mondrian, Kandinsky, Rothko and Hilma Af Klimt. The case is somewhat overstated, as Beckett hardly needs to be classifed as a seeker after spiritual truths. She may have read Madam Blavatsky’s Voice of Silence (1889) and shown an interest in Theosophy, but she is too individual an artist to be associated with any particular creed. Her spirituality can almost be taken for granted as a function of the open-minded, open-hearted way she approached the subject of a painting.
By her own assessment Beckett was a “realist” – and this is a good place to start an examination of her work. Although we tend to think of realism as holding a mirror to life there are many different ways of approaching this concept. Psychological realism may be utterly contrary to optical realism, let alone realism as a politically motivated act. The realism of artists such as Edward Hopper or Vilhelm Hammershøi is not the same as that of Gustave Courbet. What we find in the later artists’ work is a pronounced sense of interiority, a turning-back-in-upon the self that addresses the individual in a more persuasive, more universal manner than socially relevant depictions of workmen breaking stones, or peasants gathered for a funeral.
This is the realism one discerns in Beckett’s paintings. We perceive every scene as if through the artist’s own eyes, experiencing the sensations she experienced. Lock talks about “vibrations”, which is an effective short-hand for a process that remains ephemeral and not easily explicable.
There’s a palpable sense of melancholy in Beckett’s work but she couldn’t be described as negative or gloomy. She was a quick, prolific painter who preferred the light of mornings and evenings. However lonely she may have been she looks upon the world as a self-renewing wonder in which soft, shadowy forms and bursts of light testify to the infinite suggestiveness of nature and the continuous buzz of human activity.
I was wondering if this survey would reveal Beckett as a painter who worked to a formula. Although her works always stand out in group shows I was curious to see if they would grow stale with repeitition. Now I’m almost ashamed of the suspicion because it’s obvious that one of Beckett’s great strengths was the ability to treat each motif as absolutely unique. Even when she paints the same view twice there is a striking individuality to each picture. This is a show of such breathtaking evenness that it would be unfair to nominate and discuss individual works. There are literally dozens of pictures deserving of the closest attention.
Beckett’s ability to see everything in such a clear, distinct manner is the mark of an exceptional sensibility. Very few painters can limit themselves so severely and avoid repetition. Like Giorgio Morandi with his bottles and jugs on a table top, endlessly rearranged, Beckett discovered an endless variety of moods in the Melbourne suburbs.
But if her vision was decisive, the actual forms are blurred and smudged, their outlines softened by distance and dim light.
The way this show has been hung is radical but rather beautiful, taking us on a diurnal journey from the first light of dawn to the darkness of night, each stage reflected in the soft gradations of the wall colours. The catalogue, I’m sorry to say, is another matter. Although the AGSA has produced a long line of excellent publications this one commits a serious error in taste, with a cover that presents one of Beckett’s paintings within a raised frame. It looks awful – kitschy and tacky in a way that could not be more out-of-tune with this most sensitive of artists.
It’s a final irony in Beckett’s story that even with such a triumphant exhibition, something has gone wrong. We’ve never really ‘got’ this artist, whose work is at once so simple and minimal, but imbued with a metaphysical dimension and a depth of feeling that seems miraculous. If this show were being staged at Tate Modern or the Museum of Modern Art, Beckett would be hailed as a figure of world renown. I raise this thought not as an addition to the ongoing elegy for her life and work, but as a glimpse into a possible future.
Clarice Beckett: The Present Moment
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide
27 February – 16 May, 2021
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 26 March, 2021