Beckett’s approach to creating a painting is subtle. She includes recurring themes or subject matter combined with clear structural devices such as the use of horizontal and vertical lines. Beckett also plays with light and the illusion of distance (recessive space). She abandoned pre-existing compositional rules such as the grid of the Golden Mean, which had been used by artists for centuries to create a work of art that was pleasing to the eye using a mathematic principle. Instead, Beckett adopted an apparent random approach to frame her landscape views. This seemingly spontaneous and unstructured painting method includes the use of overlapping planes to create a fragmented quality, and inadvertently propels her work into a modernist space.
Beckett uses filtered light as a way to dissolve overall form rather than to build up individual elements within the composition. Her use of diffused light creates a close tonal range, which dissolves the boundaries between the areas of light and shade and, thereby, cliff, tree and water. The soft melting edges of her forms are barely perceptible, and planes appear to shift from one into the other to create an extraordinary breath-like dreamy harmony, as Max Meldrum famously stated ‘there are no lines in nature’.
Beckett made use of refracted light to convey the phenomena of nature in terms of light and colour. In Wet sand, Anglesea, 1929, and Tranquility, 1933, her glimmering and shimmering painted effects take the viewer to the edge of spatial orientation. The sun is gone, yet strips of beach and the ochre cliffs dissolve into a unified shifting field of luminous, fluid colour. Here, Beckett edges the rendering of nature almost into cosmic abstraction.
The worship of sunlight is a recurring subject with some of the greatest statements in Australian art history. Find other examples in AGSA’s Australian art collection where this is evident. Compare these with Beckett’s use of diffused light.
Look at paintings by Beckett where the sea and the sky appear to merge into one plane. What types of light conditions create this sense of the horizon line collapsing?
Visit a place which has a body of water, it might be the ocean or a waterfall or your local pool. Observe how light reflects off the water’s surface. Create a series of photographs at different times of the day which captures these shimmering natural phenomena. Remake in chalk or oil pastel and blend your colours.
A feature of many of Beckett’s compositions is the use of extreme horizontal and vertical lines. She regularly broke the rules of composition by placing a strong vertical in the centre of her images, as is evident in The last flush, c. 1928. As curator Tracey Lock describes ‘here she counterbalances the scene with a shadowy form on the left; filled with reminders of twilight, the dominant vertical seems to connect the physical world to a timeless higher reality’. Beckett reverses this approach in Wet night, Brighton, 1930, where the centre is a void of air above the suggestion of a road leading into the limitless sea. This flooded scene is framed by four posts, which optically work as two vertical bands running across from top to bottom of the picture plane.
Beckett also often framed her views from elevated viewpoints or through foreground structures like trees – as though she had arrived at the spot by chance – to depict a spontaneous glimpse of the natural world.
Investigate different composition techniques used by artists including those informed by geometry such as the Golden Mean and the rule of thirds. Find examples of these in works of art in AGSA's collection. What other types of composition techniques did you discover? Draw multiple thumbnail sketches of what you can see out of your classroom or bedroom window using different compositional techniques including Golden Mean, rule of thirds and strong horizontal and vertical lines like Beckett.
A painting sometimes consists of a foreground, middle ground and background. What do you think is the function of these planes? Draw over photocopies of Beckett’s paintings to identify the foreground, middle ground and background. Repeat this for a few of Beckett’s paintings with different subject matter. Was the composition constructed the same each time? Where does she place her subject matter? What is consistent about her compositions?
Beckett presents a spontaneous glimpse of the world as we move through nature in Early morning (The fisherman), as if we are a silent witness having stumbled upon this scene by chance. Can you find another work of art by Beckett where this may be the case?
The role of curator
Piecing together the life of one of Australia's finest painters of the twentieth century
The Gallery’s Learning programs are supported by the Department for Education.
Art Gallery of South Australia staff Tracey Lock, Kylie Neagle, Thomas Readett and Dr. Lisa Slade contributed to the development of this resource.