Clarice Beckett: Power in the Present Moment

The American paintings shouted from the walls, competing with each other for attention. Which of course they deserved, those giants of the twentieth century; they confronted cultural transformation, industrialized war, the implications of consumer culture, all the big issues. And they were big pictures: their emphatic imagery, brilliant colours, wild impastoed gestures, intense repetitions, confronted the viewer and demanded action. This is what a painting should do, they said. Attract your attention, excite you, make you change your views.

But there was distraction.  As I went from dramatic image to exhilarating abstract whirls of colour, my eye kept going to two small paintings hanging beside each other at the end of the adjacent gallery.  By contrast with the gestures and the commentary of the Americans, the little pictures seemed — self-contained.  One shone with colour like a piece of jewellery, the other was almost colourless. But each was unavoidable, and I gave up the Americans and went to look.

It was an inspired hang: what turned out to be a vivid Frida Kahlo, luscious and exuberant, beside a Clarice Beckett.  They were not alone; other perfectly interesting pictures filled the wall. But the two little paintings together dominated the room. I don’t recall Beckett’s subject, just that her spare, dignified, subfusc painting, in its quiet understated way, more than held its space beside the glowing Kahlo.

I’d expected the picture would be a Beckett, I’d been to the opening of Ros Hollinrake’s first Beckett exhibition, seen them on Ros’ walls, I knew what the artist could do to capture a scene. But until her quiet painting drew me away from the Americans I hadn’t thought about the sheer power of her pictures, how they don’t clamour for attention; that they are simply irresistible. As The Present Moment: The Art of Clarice Beckett, curated by Tracey Lock at the Art Gallery of South Australia amply illustrates. The show ends on May 23rd: go to Adelaide now.

Capture a scene. One employs a cliché for efficiency, rapidly making a minor point. But here the confluence of issues around the artist and her reputation becomes significant: the implication of the dated phrase risks losing the attention of readers used to contemporary art-writing.  That she was female, ‘disappeared from view,’ used an arcane style of painting briefly in fashion and associated with artists regarded as conventional — which style, by virtue of blurring line, seems to romanticise whatever it represents —and that she painted landscapes, still life, and portraits without a hint of ideology or overt reference to politics, or ‘issues,’  increases that risk.

Beckett was born in 1887 in comfortable circumstances in the town of Casterton in country Victoria.  Her father was a Bank Manager (then a position of considerable status, with entree to every dining table, especially in a regional town). Educated at good private schools in Ballarat and Melbourne, she then joined her family in Bendigo.  At the age of twenty-seven, in 1914, she returned to Melbourne and studied drawing for three years with Frederick McCubbin at the National Gallery School in Melbourne. The School was then situated in the immense building that housed the National Gallery and the State Library of Victoria. Gallery students worked in expansive studios above the best examples in Australia of the realist/naturalist European tradition, not to say the Australian and some French impressionists, and of course had access to the Library itself. Declining to learn painting technique from Bernard Hall (who was, in the system of the day, also director of the Gallery itself) Beckett returned to live in Bendigo with her family, then, for nine months, travelled regularly to Melbourne to study with Max Meldrum, who had developed a system of painting using tone and tonal relationships to reproduce the exact appearance of what was seen.

Lock shows that Beckett read very seriously; indeed makes it clear that Beckett was what would happily in Europe be called an intellectual.  At boarding school in her early teenage years her favourite books were Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and a classic of Theosophy The Voice of the Silence. The influential Melbourne bookseller Gino Nibbi thought her ‘the best-read woman in Melbourne.’ Lock also notes that Beckett’s friendship with the artists Archibald and Millie Colquhoun, devotees of the Meldrum technique, came about through a shared interest in Theosophy and spiritualism, and that her profound understanding of Theosophy’s ‘rich fusion of Eastern and Western philosophies’ provided Beckett’s capacity to infuse such serenity into ordinary, everyday scenes.  Beckett became the dogmatic Meldrum’s favourite student. She studied with Meldrum for nine months, then, developing his technique to suit her own purpose, she proceeded to record moments in time: a game of beach cricket, a figure on a jetty, trams passing, a sunset, the still sheen of Port Phillip Bay; suffusing them with such tenderness that they have the effect of becoming the viewer’s memory.

Beckett painted the ballerina Pavlova en pointe, a fragile figure barely intimated on an undecorated stage.  But every delicate brushstroke is drawn, so that the figure is grounded, even the ballet shoes precisely suggested. This is drawing as the resolution of observation, utter economy rendered by utter precision.  Renoir, Degas, Lautrec’s dancers seem individual, and almost sentimental beside Beckett’s ephemeral image; Beckett uses the figure to synthesise the activity itself.

Trams, cars, motorcycles, boats, taxis, roads, bridges, train tracks…there’s a lot of transport suggested in the pictures, signs of industrialisation and mass production, and her figures are often on the move; emerging from fog, playing games, walking. Even when they lean on a fence, or sit under a beach umbrella or row a boat, they never seem to pose; they have their own concerns, their own lives.  The vehicles and boats and cricketers and groups are so unerringly represented in motion that when one turns from a painting it is hard to recall the position of the person or object in the composition. Even the images of empty roads, empty seats, figures at rest, imply energy and the probability of activity.  Beckett’s superb disciplined drawing structures all this and underlies the wonderful almost-abstract sea-and-land scapes. Lock’s thoughtful grouping of these, by the time of day they represent, emphasises Beckett’s capacity to incorporate figuration —person, a light pole, a tram, boat, cliff, paddock — into a technical experiment in line and colour relations, a representation of space and distance.

The technique with which Beckett unified her pictures by blurring forms renders them at first glance romantic and elusive, so that it is almost irritating to be drawn by their power. It was in the late 1970s that her soft little picture drew me away from the Americans, and sat serenely beside the Khalo. When in 2016 I walked galleries in Italy and France and England for seven weeks there was a painter whose work in every twentieth century show drew, and in his case kept, the eye.  That too became almost irritating; there would be wonderful pictures, a long wall of masterpieces: and always, commanding and confident, the Picasso. One could not look away.

Picasso produced Les Demoiselles D’Avignon five years before Beckett began her studies at the Gallery school, and as that apotheosis of modernism had consolidated the idea that painting should interrogate — rather than reproduce — ways of seeing and thinking, Beckett’s gentle images of suburban life, her dignified portraits of un-weeping women, her non-cubist vases of flowers, her apparent distance from World War I and its effects, from strikes and the Great Depression, did anger some critics.

However, as Tracey Lock shows in her scholarly and absorbing catalogue essay, Beckett was an extremely intelligent person engaged, through reading and dialogue, in exploring and understanding humanness itself, the ways in which people can approach the sublime; a shared spiritual sympathy. Of course she was aware of social and political issues; but a genuine artist expresses ideas through lived experience, not by adopting style or attitude.  She did not marry. She was able to paint alone and in places she chose. She had funds for materials and equipment.  She chose to work en plein air, to see and celebrate elements of life and of humanity. She succeeded.  One must look again.

Despite the tranquillity and uncomplicated images, Lock positions Beckett in twentieth century modernism, and quotes Fred Williams noting that Becket ‘got there before me.’ In 1971 Williams mentioned the exhibition mounted in November by art dealer Rosalind Hollinrake to James Mollison, just appointed acting director of the NGA; the gallery acquired a number of the pictures, critic Patrick McCaughey announced Beckett as a modernist; over the years other public galleries and private collectors bought the paintings that had survived storage in a rural shed. Hollinrake has completed a biography and a doctorate, one looks forward to the publication. The catalogue introduction tells us that Ros Hollinrake hopes that this exhibition —which includes Beckett pictures from the Hollinrake collection recently purchased and donated to the Art gallery of South Australia — will begin the process of establishing Beckett in Australian art history. Ros’ work, I suggest, has done that.

Beckett’s disappearance from the scene after 1936, when the family staged a retrospective after she died at the age of 48, was unfortunate, but not surprising.  Because many of her pictures had disintegrated in their very unsatisfactory storage much emphasis has been placed on Beckett being ‘forgotten,’ ‘overlooked’ for many years, and indeed that was the case. It would be tempting to think, especially as this most recent phase of feminism demands fundamental cultural change in every aspect of society, that Beckett suffered neglect on grounds of her gender.  I want to make the point that her disappearance can’t be attributed to being a woman, except of course that no-one depended on her support, and therefore, crucially, there was no-one effectively carrying the torch for Beckett.  A widow will be assisted, especially if she has children, and mates may promote men; but no-one needed Beckett to be known: this alone can make the difference to reputation after an artist’s death. There is an interesting but associated aspect to this question of ‘place’ in the canon. McCaughey and indeed other current commentators have suggested Beckett’s reputation should be raised to equal that of Margaret Preston or Grace Cossington Smith.  I have tried to discuss the power of Beckett’s pictures, but without suggesting that making art is a sport with winners. But if it is a sport, the competition isn’t gendered.

A confluence of factors buried the work for so long. Beckett had been exhibiting regularly for seventeen years, but there wasn’t the extensive network of galleries and curators now requiring work to exhibit and discuss. She’d made the decision to reject the powerful Bernard Hall and learn from the divisive Meldrum; this suggests that she valued expressing her own vision above the acceptance of the establishment, but her association with Meldrum didn’t assist with certain critics.  Her subjects were not conventionally heroic or ideological. And there are practical, material reasons. Colour photography was being developed in the late 1930s but not even the most primitive was available while she was alive. Grainy black-and white reproductions in newspapers and magazines could not possibly convey the subtle brilliance of Beckett’s work, so her reputation was confined to those exposed to her work. Having an allowance and able to exhibit regularly, and by various accounts shy, she did not need to promote her work.  She died at the height of the Great Depression, when discretionary luxury purchasing was restricted. She died suddenly, and relatively young.

She had in fact had success. She had a number of supporters, and her pictures do not communicate the anguish of isolation or rejection.  Importantly, she was exhibited in New York through Mary Cecil Allen, whose lectures in the 1950s introduced Australians, including this writer, to the Americans I visited at the beginning of this article.  After the Second World War, American Abstract Expressionism was actively promoted in the rapidly expanding newly national artworld, and in Melbourne this ideology was opposed by Bernard Smith through the promotion of a group of what Lock calls ‘aggressive Antipodeans.’  I wouldn’t put it quite like that, but note that the group included ex-soldiers whose youth was taken by their participation in World War II, who emerged from art school determined to be seen, and who spoke to a generation eager to respond.

Beckett is in view now. Her paintings, not just the end result, but the consistent technique, the calm execution, suggest she had achieved what she wanted, to work as an artist: Lock quotes her saying that each painting ‘was a self-renewing act.’ Indeed, the pictures themselves suggest she was content, to have confidence and satisfaction in the work itself. Her training in drawing, her deep philosophical capacity, produced paintings that can hang with calm authority beside those of any artist, anywhere. The show closes in three weeks. Don’t take my word for it: go to Adelaide. See for yourself.

Clarice Beckett: The Present Moment
27 February – 23 May 2021
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide


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