Beckett never subscribed to any art movement but closely identified with Max Meldrum’s unusual teaching methods, which transformed her painting practice. These methods using a limited colour palette and applying tones in broad areas directly onto the canvas surface without any under drawing. Beckett extended these methods by applying them en plein air (in the open air or outside). This approach to painting had been common place for Impressionist painters from the mid nineteenth century. Impressionists were interested in capturing colour and light to paint form. Beckett however was interested in capturing space and distance using light to dissolve form. By painting outside Beckett rapidly captured in oil paint the shifting effects of light, from early morning and into twilight and dusk, which translated into an atmospheric form of painterly abstraction.
As curator of The present moment, Tracey Lock says ‘the art of Beckett allows us to see the world anew’. Beckett’s preoccupation with conveying shifts in light and shade is evident in her everyday views of her local environment which are painted at different times of the day and in different weather conditions. This, combined with Beckett’s compositional techniques, we see the common place as though through fresh eyes.
Modernist artists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries rejected traditional styles and realistic depictions of subject matter. Instead, modernist artists deviated from large labour intensive realist studio paintings and experimented with materials and techniques, resulting in works of art that were finished very quickly and that played with form and colour. These artists were sometimes inspired to paint modern industry. Beckett’s interest in to capturing the changes she discovered in her surrounding world such as trams, cars, telegraph and electric light poles and bitumen roads places her within this broad definition of modernism.
Modernism is the cultural response to the rapid changes of the Industrial Revolution. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, modernism reflected the dramatic shifts in society that took place in Europe, North America and eventually the world, including Australia. Manufacturing, new modes of transportation, such as the steam engine, the car and the aeroplane, as well as the invention of electricity and telecommunications along with the rise of capitalism transformed formerly agrarian societies into urbanised cities and towns. Modernism is the artistic response to this rapid social and technological change.
In terms of its visual expression, modern art was markedly different from its preceding movements. The previous centuries of Western art had long been occupied with mythological, biblical and historic subjects. Art was understood as an illustrative tool, used on behalf of the church or by those in power. Modern art, however, revolutionised this understanding as it sought to find new expression in response to the changes of the modern world. Over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the parameters of art and the role of the artist were deeply questioned. Artists began to value art as a form of personal expression and for holding value intrinsic to itself. Art loosened its grip on being illustrative or illusionistic, making a long grand arc towards abstraction in the middle of twentieth century.
Curator’s Insight – Motor lights, 1929
Motor lights presents a radical break from the traditional subject matter of the time, depicting an everyday and unremarkable road scene. Here, Beckett paints the first images in Australian art in which an everyday bitumen road is elevated to a high-art subject. Using the light source of the car’s headlights, Beckett transforms the area of road surface from an unremarkable flat grey into a vibrating field of atmospheric space, reflected light and liquid colour.
By Tracey Lock, Curator of Australian painting and sculpture at AGSA, The Present Moment - the art of Clarice Beckett, 2021.
Beckett’s paintings reveal a changing modern Australian life, often featuring cars, trams and buses – all synonymous with the modern world. When talking about the work Motor Lights by Beckett, the Australian painter, Sir William Dargie stated ‘it was painted without the fear of depicting things most people would regard as ugly’. Create a painting that captures something people today would consider ugly; how will you use light and tone to present this subject in a new way?
Create a work of art that celebrates the contemporary world that you live in today. What medium will you use and why?
In 1979, the AGSA’s then curator, Ian North purchased Morning shadows from the milestone Clarice Beckett retrospective exhibition, held that same year. Today the artist and writer, North suggests that concepts of modernism remain fluid. With regard to Beckett, ‘what seems modernist in one context, seems conservative in another’. In this way, Beckett’s art is difficult to define as belonging to a single definitive art movement. As Tracey Lock, curator of the exhibition notes ‘on one hand Beckett’s paintings looks like realism, yet on the other they appear blurred and abstract’.
- Explain how Beckett’s work fits within the definition of modernism in terms of style, technique and subject matter.
- Considering the time and place in which Beckett created her work, how might one deem her work to be conservative?
- Investigate works of art made prior to modernism. How were these works of art different to work made by Beckett and other modern artists generally? Consider the size of the work and who the works were made for.
Beckett was interested in transient motifs, which became recurring themes in her work. Look at the work Passing trams, do you get a sense the trams are moving? How does she convey movement and yet capture a sense of stillness? What other impressions do you deduce from Beckett’s use of light and tone? Is it a warm, cold, loud or quiet street scene?
Look at examples of works of art made by other Australian artists who were painting at the same time as Beckett. How is her work different from theirs? How might Beckett have been influenced by other artists? What is unique about her work? Tip: Perhaps begin with Grace Crowley, Bessie Davidson, Sydney Long, Max Meldrum, Hilda Rix, and Grace Cossington Smith.
In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century many Australian artists travelled to London and Paris to study at innovative art schools with like-minded artists. Here they were introduced to modern movements such as impressionism, post-impressionism, cubism and abstraction.
Australian art critic Patrick McCaughey was among the first, in 1971, to identify Beckett as a modernist and place Beckett alongside Grace Cossington Smith and Margaret Preston as a major artist of the period. McCaughey stated that Preston and Cossington Smith were conscious modernists having travelled extensively, while Beckett had never left Victoria and struggled to pursue her career as an artist. However, Beckett was very well read, so much so that Gino Nibbi (1896-1969), author, art critic and owner of the Leonardo Bookshop in Little Collins Street, proclaimed her as ‘the best-read woman in Melbourne’. Beckett may not have travelled like other Australian modernist painters of her time, but she was reading the same literature as European artists and aware of scientific advances that were being made. In this way she was exposed to the same modern ideas and concepts.
Beckett was influenced by literature and music including Chopin and Debussy. These composers were inspired by the impressionists, but also by sunrises, sunsets and the sense of the temporal. In around 1903 composer Frederick Delius’s wrote a piece Sea Drift. It takes its name from Walt Whitman's compilation of poems Leaves of Grass, and the piece itself includes text from Whitman’s poem Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking. The title of Beckett’s painting Sea Drift may suggest that she was inspired by both Delius and Whitman when creating this work of art.
- Listen to Sea Drift
- Listen to musical scores by Chopin and Debussy.
- Read Whitman’s poem Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.
What connections can you make between these pieces and Sea Drift by Beckett?
Create a work of art that is inspired by a piece of music or poetry. You may like to read some of Whtiman’s poems in Leaves of grass which contain several poems about the sea or the shore to help you visualise a scene from writing alone.
Curator Tracey Lock has paired Beaumaris seascape by Beckett with a tonal score, Song of Summer by Delius. This piece was created around 1919 and describes the sea:
"I want you to imagine we are sitting on the cliffs of heather and looking out over the sea. The sustained chords in the high strings suggest the clear sky and stillness and calm of the scene...You must remember that figure that comes in the violins when the music becomes more animated. I'm introducing it there to suggest the gentle rise and fall of the waves. The flutes suggest a seagull gliding by." – Frederick Delius
Abstract art, which emerged in the early twentieth century, is often described as non-representational. This means that rather than depicting identifiable subject matter artists respond to things you can’t necessarily see such as emotions, sounds and spirituality. This sometimes results in pure abstract works of art that consist of geometric shapes, colours and gestural marks. For example, Swedish painter Hilma af Klimt (1862 -1944) was interested in depicting invisible forces such as electromagnetic fields and infra-red light, while Russian painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) believed sounds manifested themselves as colours and shapes.
Kandinsky developed a new way of representing the world of the early twentieth century – the age of the machine and scientific advances. He moved away from depicting the real world and instead believed that colour had a powerful and spiritual impact, associating the sounds of musical compositions with colour, tones, shapes and lines. As Kandinsky stated “colour is a power which directly influences the soul. Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammer, the soul is the strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key to another, to cause the vibrations in the soul”.
Like Kandinsky, Beckett’s approach to painting was deeply spiritual and culminated in the creation of an optically indefinite blurred quality. This was a way of perceiving and subtly recording the world. Whether deliberate or accidental, Beckett conjured the feeling of eternal space by unifying fields of vibrating colour.
Tracey Lock, the curator of Clarice Beckett: The present moment, describes Beckett’s work as an atmospheric form of painterly abstraction. Select five works of art by Beckett. Arrange these works from least to most abstract. Discuss your choices with the class. Remember: Abstract art is any work of art that is non- representational; it makes little or no visual reference to the physical world.
Conduct a class debate with one side arguing that Beckett’s paintings are realistic while the other argues they are abstract. Provide examples to support each side of the argument. Where in the continuum of ‘realistic to abstract’ is Beckett’s work situated?
Innovation in Australian art has often occurred through landscape painting, including the breakthroughs made with Australian tonalist landscapes. This later paved the way for artists such as Fred Williams in 1962 with his abstraction of the Australian landscape. Williams would comment on Clarice Beckett’s practice stating ‘she really was ahead of her time’. What do you think he meant by this? Examine the works of Fred William in comparison to Beckett. How are they similar and how are they different?
Beckett’s paintings are intimate engagements that more closely resembled quiet personal meditations between the self and nature. Practise being mindful. As a class, brainstorm all the things you admire about the natural world? Spend some time outside observing tree formations, leaves or the way animals interact with each other or their environment. Be still. After 5 minutes of being still, write a reflection of the thing that you found the most interesting.
On one side of a blank postcard template, draw your favourite painting by Beckett using only three lines. On the other side of your postcard describe the atmospheric feeling of this painting to someone who has never seen this work before. Send your postcard to this person.
Look closely at the work Passing trams, c. 1931. Imagine you have stepped inside this work of art. What is it like here? What can you feel, smell, see and hear? What would you be wearing and who might be with you?
Visit your favourite place, it might be a place in nature, your home or suburban area. Record the sounds of this place. Swap your recordings with other people in your class. Create a work of art based solely on the sounds you hear.
Beckett paints just enough information for our brains to fill in the gaps or details, which creates a sense of a certain place. Create a pastel drawing or watercolour painting that captures the essence of a busy scene. Which elements are most important, which will you leave up to the viewer to imagine?
Frozen in time
The invention of photography during the Industrial Revolution, followed by the release of the first commercial camera (the Kodak Brownie) in 1900, altered the role of artists forever. Painting had to redefine itself. The depiction of realistic representations of objects, people and places was no longer an artists’ main pursuit, as these depictions could now be easily achieved with a photograph.
Beckett’s gentle, atmospheric form of painterly abstraction had a parallel association with the advances in photography where a soft aesthetic was being explored. For example, her work coincided with the height of soft- focus pictorial photography, led by the Adelaide-born photographer John Kauffmann (1864-1942). Pictorial photographers used the camera like a paintbrush, manipulating their image to highlight the beauty of their subject rather than simply capturing or recording reality. At times their atmospheric photographs were mistaken for paintings.
Beckett’s work also gives the impression of a photograph. She explores an interest in motion, composing and painting as though her subjects have been captured spontaneously in a split moment in time, resulting in a candid or ‘shoot from the hip’ quality. In Morning shadows, c.1932, she depicts a motorbike in freeze frame, a split second before it escapes from vision over the hill. In A good blow, like a snapshot, the painting marks the moment of arrival of a surging wave and its dematerialisation into formless matter. In these candid-like paintings, Beckett creates tension between the seemingly fragmented imagery of something in motion and the representation of stillness.
The invention and increased use of photography in the modern era encouraged artists to explore and experiment, as they were no longer needed to depict notable people, places or events with incredible accuracy. If photographic depictions surpassed the need for artists, what is the role of the artist in painting the Australian landscape in the modern era, and also today? Tip: Look at the Wynne Prize or the Hadley's Art Prize
Compare Beckett’s work to soft- focus pictorial photography of 1900s. Begin by looking at the work of John Kauffmann. List all the things which these two artists’ works have in common.
Beckett often captured social gatherings at the beach as if suspended in time. Randomly grouped figures (often in pairs) are shown in motion, with arms raised, or bending over and absorbed in what they are doing. Look at the work Warm summer evening. Describe what the figures are doing. Imagine the next frame of this scene - draw what the figures will do next?
Beckett adopts an apparent random or chance ‘incidental’ approach to framing her landscape views, an approach with links to a photographic awareness. Take a series of candid photographs of an everyday street. Experiment with different techniques and angles including ‘shooting from the hip’.
In recent years, with the invention of digital cameras and the camera phone, photography has experienced its own resurgence, with artists returning to the handmade print or experimental process of art making. Investigate the work of artists who use camera-less techniques for their photographic work such as Sonja Carmichael, Elisa Carmichael and Justine Varga.
The role of curator
Piecing together the life of one of Australia's finest painters of the twentieth century
Introducing Clarice Beckett
Learn more about one of Australia’s most important painters of the interwar period
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.