Australian Fine Artist

The Ordinary Instant

Clarice Beckett at The Gallery @ BACC

There were other artists represented at the mid-winter exhibition in Brighton this year, but I attended to concentrate on Beckett’s paintings. This was my first opportunity to see a collection of her work in real life, in the one place. It was also the first visit I had made to this gallery space, so I was interested to see how the council had transformed the town hall space for artworks.

Beckett, as many may know was the prize pupil of tonal painter Max Meldrum. She was restricted by family commitments so most of her remaining paintings are based close to her bayside home. Beckett’s work sat in a shed for many years until rediscovered only just over forty years ago. Since then her work has become an integral part of the story of women artists in Australia.

The atmospheric nature of Beckett’s paintings is mostly due to painting in the early morning and late afternoon, when she could get away from the house. There are records of her taking days trips and attending paint-outs with other artists, but this was not how most of her time was spent. Because of her restricted life and lack of a proper studio space to work in, she deserves appreciation for the body of work that she left to us.

The focus of many works that I liked in this exhibition was the seaside. Using Meldrum’s methods of tonal painting, these scenes are soft and inviting. The limited palette and broad strokes keep out unwanted details, leaving the eye of the viewer to fill in the blanks and create the story. Little touches of colour or blobs of white take the attention to focal points like tail lights on cars, or street lights as they disappear into the distance.

The street scenes have depth and perspective that holds the eye and pulls you into the painting. These ordinary street views, so typical of when she was alive, are now records of the day to day history of our suburbs, something that can be lost in bigger and more ‘important’ history paintings.

Beckett’s still life works are another area of her paintings that I like. They are strong but still soft and not overly cluttered. The use of light and texture is not overdone, and a simple spot of light reflected on a glass vase, creates a dynamic finish.

Given that all her paintings are in a host of different frames, and are of various sizes, I felt that as you looked at them grouped together on the wall, a sense of her as an artist and person became clearly evident. Her appreciation of light, atmosphere, of the everyday little things that we may pass by, and her ability to capture a moment during an ordinary day are things that make her work so special.

From my visit today, I am left with a few questions based on observations of Beckett’s work.

  1. Did she have a limited palette to accommodate her style of painting or was it due to a lack of paints, considering her lack of support from her father in particular?
  2. Similarly with her materials like canvases and boards. Did she use card and board due to lack of support for her art, or did she experiment with them as part of her development?
  3. The variety of frames made me ask if she framed these works, or had someone collected a variety of frames, modified them and used them to try to fit with her style of painting at some stage? If so, when was this done? Some looked like the paintings were in their original frames, but others, I wasn’t sure about. Information about these issues would have been good to see.

I took a few close-up shots of paintings to get a better understanding of how Beckett worked. As a painter, I like to see how, and then back off to appreciate. A selection of my photos is placed below.

IMG_2867 IMG_2876 IMG_2881 IMG_2878 IMG_2884

To finish off

The exhibition was spread through two main areas, that had been divided into smaller themed spaces. Beckett’s paintings were hung in a Salon style arrangement, that suited the framing and style of her works, but had it’s drawbacks. One was that the higher works were hard to see in the lighting as there was glare from the surface of the paintings. The other was that the paintings were arranged with varying distances from each other, a small thing I suppose, but I like to see a regular spacing between paintings, even when hung Salon style, with enough space around each work to let them breathe and be appreciated. Personally, I found the irregular spaces a bit distracting and messy.

There was also a lack of exhibition books or catalogues. They had run out I was told after asking, and there was no indication of any new ones being printed. Taking names for a mail out for reprints would have been a good idea, especially for those of us who study art, and who are looking at women artists in particular.

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