Clarice Beckett: The present moment

The Clarice Beckett exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia ends on 16 May. You have 30 days in April and 16 in May. Whether you hitch-hike or fly, sleep rough or in the poshest hotel, get to Adelaide to see the show. This is the Australian painter of the 20th century; she encapsulates the place and period and people she observed, none surpasses her.

Clarice Beckett died in 1935 at the age of 45; and until her sister brought a picture to art dealer Rosalind Hollinrake in the early 1970s, Beckett’s work had not been celebrated in the post-second-World-War artworld. Hollinrake collected and promoted the pictures and has completed a PhD, which will be the definitive biography. A number of works in this show have recently been donated – it includes loans from private and public collections, together with Beckett pictures already in the gallery’s collection.

Clarice Beckett, Sandringham Beach, c.1933, Sandringham, Melbourne, oil on canvas. Purchased 1971 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Curator Tracey Lock has for some years been researching, writing and mounting exhibitions of artists taught and influenced by Max Meldrum, who developed a ‘system’ of painting, ‘Australian tonalism.’ Clarice Beckett was his star pupil. There are particular art-political reasons why the artist was not, until recently, acclaimed. These have been addressed by Lock and Hollinrake – Meldrum was always controversial, and like most other innovative systems, especially those which ask us to ‘see’ things differently, his was resisted.

Clarice Beckett, Silent approach, c.1924, Beaumaris, Melbourne, oil on board. Purchased with the assistance of Ken Baxter and Annabel Baxter, Peter Burrows AO, Kiera Grant, Bill Hayward and Alison Hayward, Colin Hindmarsh and Barbara Hindmarsh, The Hon. Diana Laidlaw AM, John Schaeffer AO and Bettina Dalton, Ezekiel Solomon AM, 2014, 100 Works for 100 Years, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

It is surprising, shocking, to think that these powerful pictures, which synthesise so much of what it was to be alive in Melbourne before the war, went for years uncollected and unexhibited.  But we look at 1935, the year of Beckett’s death, from an artworld sustained by dealer-exhibiting galleries, curators with training in text but not in making art, a vast network of public galleries and teaching institutions, an art ‘investment’ system, and public relations companies specialising in arts promotion.

Clarice Beckett, Passing trams, c.1931, Melbourne, oil on board. Edna Berniece Harrison Bequest Fund through the Friends of the Art Gallery of South Australia 2001, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

Beckett was gaining reputation when she died, and her commitment was to the work, not to fame. We forget that artist as an occupation was often suspect until the 1960s, and even then seemed louche; we have to remember that it was culturally the norm for unmarried women like Beckett to stay home and care for their parents.  She had what she needed to make the pictures she wanted to make. And it was a slow time, the depression shrank more than the economy; art is a luxury buy. Then came the war and the triumph post-war of American cultural internationalism.

Clarice Beckett, Camellias, c.1925, Beaumaris, Melbourne, oil on board. Private Collection

And there lay these pictures… small, delicate, often almost colourless; waiting to be appreciated. An unidentifiable figure in a soft fog. A cricket game on the beach. Camellias in a ginger jar. Trams, passing. Hollinrake recognised them, and Lock has presented them in an ingeniously designed exhibition which takes the viewer to the sites where Beckett worked and reflects the light and mood of the times of day, to which she so brilliantly gave expression. It’s about the power of art. Get going now. See this show.

Dr Judith Pugh is an arts and cultural writer based in regional New South Wales.

Art Gallery of South Australia
27 February to 16 May, 2020