Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 1 June 2021
Clarice Beckett Australian Painter, 1887-1935 rediscovered in 1971
We are house-sitting in McLaren Vale in South Australia for three-and-a-half weeks. I have covered house-sitting before in Germany and England in earlier articles.
House-sitting is a great alternative to tourism because it takes you to wonderful places that you probably wouldn’t go to otherwise, sometimes off the tourist track. You have a chance to experience culture and lifestyle different from one’s own. This, of course, has been the driver for most of my travel in Australia and overseas.
Because, I left behind certain materials I can’t continue with my Karakorum Highway articles until I get home.
In the 1970s and early 1980s several feminist friends were of the firm opinion that women artists in Australia as with overseas had been neglected because of the male dominance of the arts. Yet, in those days they were struggling to provide anything more convincing than anecdotal evidence.
Nowadays, there is much more evidence of neglected, forgotten and undiscovered women artists in Australia. Since the death of Brett Whiteley, I would contend that the major Australian artists are women. Naming them is of course controversial but my list would include Rosalie Gascoigne, Fiona Hall and Jude Rae (the last perhaps not yet so acknowledged). For me, Clarice Beckett the artist for this article has emerged as one of them as well.
There have been several major exhibitions rediscovering women artists. One I enjoyed was of Hilda Rix Nicholas at the National Portrait Gallery in 2013.
Know My Name
The National Gallery of Australia is belatedly recognising the achievements of women artists from 1900 to the present in a major exhibition called Know My Name, which is broken into two parts from 19 November 2020 to 9 May 2021 and 12 June 2021 to 26 January 2022. This is a really important exhibition.
I thoroughly enjoyed the first half and look forward to the second.
As a female friend wryly observed they did make one obvious blunder. The opening part of the first exhibition is a salon hang of a large number of women artists. For the general visitor the only indication of who the artists are is a small complicated chart indicating the paintings, at either end of the hang. The left hand one covers the left side to the middle and the right hand from the right side to the middle. For the untutored viewer, it is extremely hard to Know My Name of any artist in this salon hang.
I hope they don’t repeat this in the second half of the exhibition.
Clarice Beckett Exhibition, South Australia 2021
This is all a lead up to the absolutely marvellous retrospective exhibition of the work of Clarice Beckett The Present Moment curated curated by Tracey Lock at the ART Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) from 27 February to 23 May 2021. We only managed to see the exhibition because it had been extended by one week.
The AGSA says:
During the 1920s and 1930s Clarice Beckett surrendered to the sensory impressions of her everyday world with such intensity that the force of her painted observations created an entirely new visual language. The extreme economy of her painting tested her Australian audiences, and yet distinguished her as working at the avant-garde of international modernism. Drawn from national public and private collections, highlights include the artist’s famed ethereal images of commonplace motifs such as lone figures, waves, trams and cars.
The exhibition of 130 paintings is themed to chart the shift of time to be experienced across a single day. The paintings come from State and regional galleries and from the National Gallery of Australia. Many works are from private collectors, including four (very good ones) from the collection of Russell Crowe the actor.
The majority of the paintings are en plein air paintings made by the artist in the region of Beaumaris and other suburbs around the Bay in Melbourne. However, the AGSA has the most extensive collection of any public gallery partly because of the gift of 21 paintings by Alastair Hunter OAM (more about whom later).
Fred Williams (1927-1982) from Victoria (one of the most famous Australian landscape artists in the modern era) when viewing the rediscovery exhibition in 1971 of Clarice Beckett’s work said to James Mollison (the newly appointed first director of the National Gallery of Australia): She got there before me. No higher praise could be made of her work, or define its place in Australian art history. She is a major figure in Australian landscape art.
John McDonald (a formidable Australian critic) is rarely effusive, but is so in his review of Clarice Beckett in The Present Moment (see below).
A Brief Biography
Clarice Beckett (21 March 1887 – 7 July 1935) was born into comfortable circumstances in Casterton, Victoria. Her father was a bank manager. She was educated in good private schools in Ballarat and Melbourne and then joined her family in Bendigo. In 1914 aged 27 she returned to Melbourne to study under Frederick McCubbin at the National Gallery School for three years. She then continued her studies under Max Meldrum whose controversial theories became a pivotal factor in her own art practice.
In 1919 her family moved from Bendigo into the undeveloped Bayside suburb of Beaumaris in Melbourne. Beckett asked her father to include a studio for her in the new house but he said the kitchen table would be good enough. Beckett’s art endeavours were also curtailed by the need to look after her parents. Nevertheless, she went out at dawn and dusk and occasionally at other times to conduct en plein air studies.
Her association with Max Meldrum may have had negative consequences with the critical reception of her exhibitions. However, she did exhibit regularly with regular exhibitions at the Athenaeum and later the Max Meldrum galleries. Some of her work was popular with the public and she was well-known to and associated with other mainstream artists at the time.
Supposedly exhausted from caring for her mother and grief at her death, Beckett was caught in a storm while painting, developed double pneumonia and passed away at the age of 48 in 1935. A major retrospective exhibition of Beckett’s work was organised in 1936 by her father and sister with the support of other contemporary artists and friends.
Her father at the same time burnt many of her works, which he considered unfinished.
Rosalind Hollinrake’s resurrection of Clarice Beckett
Rosalind Hollinrake was in her mid-twenties (and coincidentally married to Barry Humphries) when she was struck by a moody haunting painting signed C. Beckett. She contacted journalist Keith Dunstan who asked his readers if anyone knew of the artist. Two days later a well-dressed woman entered Hollinrake’s Gallery with some small paintings by the same artist. This was Clarice Beckett’s sister Hilda, who took Hollinrake to an open farm shed in Benalla, where 2000 of Beckett’s paintings had been stored for thirty years. Only 369 works could be salvaged, as John McDonald says the weather and the possums had laid waste to the rest and calls the loss one of the great disasters of Australian art history.
Hollinrake held an exhibition of a few dozen paintings in 1971 which was a success. James Mollison bought eight paintings for the National Gallery of Australia. Hollinrake spent much of the rest of her life promoting Clarice Beckett. She wrote a PhD on the subject, published a book on Beckett and in 2020, through the generosity of Alistair Hunter, Hollinrake organised 21 of her personal collection of Beckett paintings be donated to the Art Gallery of South Australia as the fitting repository for Beckett’s work.
Hollinrake’s dedication to reviving the legacy of Clarice Beckett’s art has been an immense labour of love. As Tim Colebatch says:
Australia owes a great debt to Rosalind Hollinrake. It is largely thanks to her that, in all, about 600 paintings have been preserved.
I don’t want to comment on the artistic merit of Clarice Beckett’s work. Had I seen only four or so of her paintings, I would not have recognised their importance. Seeing 150 blew me away. But, I am not alone in this.
The iPhone photos have their limitations but they show enough to display the mainstream genius of Beckett’s ouevre.
Clarice Beckett is recognised as one of the most important modernist artists. She is perhaps the key member of the Australian tonalist movement begun by Max Meldrum and his students.
Tim Colebatch a journalist, says of the Meldrumites tonalism:
Their works, overwhelmingly landscapes, rejected sharp lines for fuzzy edges, their blurred images reminding more literal minds of photos out of focus. Many in the art world just didn’t get it.
Beckett pushed the boundaries furthest of all. In her seascapes and suburban street scenes, forms became indistinct, humans became blobs on the beach or footpath, headlights became splotches in the fog or rain, poles were only roughly straight, and one colour merged into the next. She was indomitable: the more the critics attacked her lack of “form,” the further she moved from what they wanted her to do.
John McDonald a respected Australian art critic says:
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.
The photos of the works are only casual documenting iPhone images. Not all the works are named because the catalogue is out of print and we won’t obtain a copy for some time. Nevertheless, the fact that the images of many works are untitled and undated as yet is rather freeing. It helps you to enjoy them as they are without verbiage getting in the way.
Key Words: Clarice Beckett, painter, painting, Present Moment, Know My Name, Rosalind Hollinrake, Art Gallery of South Australia
Wikipedia on Clarice Beckett
John McDonald Article
Article by Tim Colebatch
Art Gallery of South Australia
Art Gallery of South Australia on the Present Moment Exhibition 2021
Art Gallery of South Australia MEDIA RELEASE on Acquiring Clarice Beckett works
published in McLaren Vale
Thank you Tony. I had known very little about Beckett. Extraordinary artist. Fancy producing her work at the kitchen table.
A terrific exhibition and wonderful to see a retrospective of the work of an artist of such stature, that you’ve never heard of before. Though we had been told that the exhibition was not to be missed!
Thanks Tony, a real treat. I lived ‘Bayside’ for a good few years and recignised the feel of the area. Love thus artist; completely bew to me. Her work would give Turner a run for his money . Teresadidi.
Indeed, I think John McDonald got it right: 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 suspect that it would have created a sensation in Berlin!
All the best Didi.