Impressionism

Between sea and sky: a portrait of Clarice Beckett (1887 – 1935)

Evening, St Kilda Road

Oil on Canvas 1930

In the early 1930s, along the low-slung coastal promontory of Beaumaris in Melbourne, a middle-aged woman could be seen wheeling a homemade cart stacked with paints and canvases. The artist, Clarice Beckett, produced atmospheric paintings of suburban streets and strangely eerie landscapes.  

At the time Beckett’s art was maligned by the critics, who were dismissive of her association with Melbourne’s fringe ‘Tonalist’ movement, and during her lifetime she sold very few works. In 1935, at the age of forty-seven, Beckett died in a nursing home, and her work was soon forgotten.

Beckett’s favoured artistic terrains, her subjects were also of an urban (and suburban) modernity. Drawn to ideas of Theosophy as a creative stimulus, Beckett composed elements of the suburban everyday (cars, trams, telegraph poles, and tarred roads) into poetically-hazed city and land-scapes which transcend everyday reality and hint at the supra-real or infinite.

‘Evening, St Kilda Road’ lyrically elaborates the artist’s signature subject in an image of the city’s soft-focused modernity. Fusing an urban electric glow with twilight’s ambient luminosity, Beckett explores the sfumatoed limits of representation, using darkened box-shaped cars to retrieve her composition from a misty point of abstraction. Beckett activates colour for potent atmospheric effect, enveloping the city with a rosy-toned veil that evokes the last moments of twilight.

Beckett’s preference for early evening or morning subjects was not for simple poetic effect. Instead, as ‘Evening, St Kilda Road’ demonstrates, she was drawn to the technical challenge of painting the essence of her subject within the fleeting moment; and of observing light effects and developing delicate tonal nuances that blurred the terrains of reality and illusion.

Nearly forty years after Beckett’s death, around two thousand of her artworks were discovered in a shed on a property in rural Victoria. Many of these paintings were rotted and torn, and unable to be identified or restored. Rosalind Hollinrake, who is a curator, former gallery owner, and Beckett’s biographer, helped salvage the artworks, and began to piece together the life and work of one of Australia’s most unique landscape artists.

Clarice Beckett’s personal life remains something of an enigma; her dedication to her art, and her refusal of several marriage proposals pitted her against her family’s traditional view of a woman’s role in society; a view more akin to the Victorian era into which she was born she than the heady, turbulent inter-war period, when Beckett was at her creative highpoint. She was twenty-seven years old when she finally attended art school; her father refused to allow her to set up a studio in the family home, where, as an unmarried woman, she remained all her life, and thus bore the full load of caring for her ill and ageing parents. Beckett’s bleak domestic life was compounded by the hostility of art critics, and at times, her own peers, who misunderstood her distinctive approach. Despite these circumstances Clarice Beckett was driven to make art, and each day at dawn and dusk she could be seen in the suburban streets around her home, and most often on Beaumaris Beach, paintbrush in hand, absorbed in her painting. and managed to exhibit her work annually over a ten year period.

Today her posthumous reputation grows as her vision of modern urban and coastal Australia is acknowledged by contemporary painters, with her works now held in over four of the country’s major public galleries.

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