If it wasn’t for curator Rosalind Hollinrake, a great of Australian art could have been lost to obscurity. Clarice Beckett's story is both poignant and familiar – an enormity of talent boxed away in a quiet life, boarded by the expectations tied to being a woman in the early twentieth century. But make no mistake, small life or not, there is nothing trivial about Beckett’s work.
In this series of five lithographs, Beckett’s unique and precious vision is brought back to life. Commissioned as a commemorative project by Nadine Amadio and Hollinrake, printed at Marnling Press and never brought to market, each work offers collectors a way into a legacy that almost never was. There’s only one impression of each work available – so if they move you, as they have art critics, academics and curators, act quickly.
An Almost Forgotten Great
Beckett was born in Casterton, Victoria, to a banker and his wife. Her father did not want his daughter studying art, finally capitulating under the condition Beckett be chaperoned by her sister. She was then twenty-seven. At the National Gallery Art School, she studied under famed tonalist Max Meldrum before returning to her parent’s who had then moved to the bayside suburb of Beaumaris.
Beckett spent her adulthood caring for her invalid mother, never straying from Victoria. Without room to paint at home, she trekked into the mist every morning and evening with a handmade trolley to work en plein air, occasionally finishing her scenes at the kitchen table. She never married, dying prematurely from pneumonia at age forty-eight.
After her passing, Beckett’s father destroyed 200 of her works that he considered unfinished or “not good enough”. The remaining 2000 were stored in an open-sided shed near Benalla, only to be discovered by Hollinrake decades later; by then only 379 were salvageable, the rest laid to rest by bad weather and possums. Renowned critic John McDonald decried this as:
“among the great disasters of Australian art history”.
This year, the Art Gallery of South Australia staged a major retrospective of Beckett’s work. The aforementioned critic visited three times, irrevocably moved. He wrote that if the same exhibition was at the Tate Modern or the Museum of Modern Art, Beckett would be “hailed as a figure of world renown”. Indeed, Hollinrake believes the works destroyed by the artist’s father were “Rothko-esque” – transcendent plains of colour native to the frontline of Modernism. If only it wasn’t for her family’s disapproval.
A section of Rothko's 'Untitled (Red)' said to possess a similar sense of transcendence to Beckett's misty landscapes.
That Beckett’s landscapes inspire more than meets the eyes is not incidental. She was interested in theosophy - a belief in divine wisdom via mysticism - as well as the science of temporality. There is a universe of difference between how a street at dawn versus midnight feels, and her work deftly catches this. She was known to rise at 4am and walk to a nearby beach to watch the sun wake, painting it seep into the sky.
The Dignity of the Everyday
There is a profoundly life-affirming quality to Beckett’s work. For her, the metaphysical could be found in a light pole, tram or cul de sac. Her scenes are hazy and indeterminate, a sensorium set in suburbia; while minimal, they harbour a depth of meaning that feels nothing short of miraculous.
At the Rothko Chapel in Texas there are on-staff counselors to provide support to overwhelmed spectators – a fact that speaks to the peculiar magic to Rothko’s work. Beckett courts this same magic. On one hand, her story is about quiet daring, pursuing your passion in the face of disapproval. On the other hand, it’s a lesson in precarity. There is a universe, so very similar to this one, in which she is entirely lost to history.
“If we don’t have open minds and hearts and ears, something really precious can slip through our fingers. That’s what really haunts us about this story. We all make mistakes and can let something slip by... The projection is a memorial to [Beckett] and to that; it’s a tomb to her and a memorial – and a reminder to us.”
– Curator Tracey Lock on the AGSA's Beckett exhibition
Since being rediscovered, Beckett has entered the collection of every state gallery in Australia. She was featured in the National Gallery of Australia’s renowned ‘Know Her Name’ exhibition, which sought to redress gender imbalance in Australia’s art canon.
Rare to market, these lithographs are a chance to continue and bask in Beckett’s legacy. For the artist, lonely as she may have been, the world was ripe with self-renewing wonder. Rain, hail or shine, she waded forth, led by a profound belief in the beauty of ordinary life.
View the entire collection here.