Clarice Beckett: The Ordinary Instant
2 July to 11 September,
The Gallery, Bayside Arts and Cultural Centre, Brighton
Beckett’s lyrical soft focus paintings are associated with the tonal school of Max Meldrum and his obsession with contrasting shapes and pattern. This exhibition of over fifty works by Beckett (1887–1935) is shown in the context of seven contemporary women painters responding to her work: Lynne Boyd, Michelle Hamer, Kristin Headlam, Pia Murphy, Saffron Newey, Victoria Reichelt and Camilla Tadich.
Meldrum didn’t believe in drawing – his teleological view of art allowed him to believe he had discovered a new ‘science of appearances’ which superceded line drawing. Beckett adopted his views onsummarising a scene in terms of pattern, but her work is as much kin to Whistler and woodblock prints as to tonalism.
The link is the reduction of three dimensional forms to flat areas – a modernist concern, despite Meldrum’s proclaimed rejection of modernism. But Beckett’s work is infused with a tranquil and subtle sense of colour entirely her own. In fact to link her with the Meldrumites is a tad misleading. Although she counted herself a follower, and exhibited with them, her background was much broader. She attended Meldrum classes for only one year and prior to that was at the National Gallery School for three years under Frederick McCubbin. Her ability to translate Meldrum’s dictums into mature work of her own speaks of a greater depth than pure tonalism which in many other Meldrumites led to a group style rather than an individual voice. Her tonal range is muted, chalky, very un-Meldrum; he favoured strong contrasts. Driving home from the exhibition I passed through a retail shopping strip. ‘Pastels that pop’ proclaimed a women’s clothing chain. But pastels don’t pop, and Beckett rarely approaches the outer reaches of the tonal range. Her mood is a subdued harmonious whole.
High key works can sometimes appear equivocal, as if the painter was afraid to state a form boldly. This is not the case with Beckett. Her high key is a deliberate strategy to evoke mood. There is nothing uncertain about these pictures; the forms, the scale and the ambition are bold. To wander about the foreshore of Beaumaris making pictures as a single woman in the 1920’s requires a certainty of intent. And then there’s the energy of the brushstrokes. Nothing tentative there at all – a swoop and a dollop provide a figure, a dash and a scumble; a tree.
The large simplicity of the shapes to which Beckett reduces the world result in confident compositions which almost always succeed. These pictures are the opposite of the niggling fine detail at the expense of form, and the uniformity of stroke, which are a key weakness of paintings based on photographs. What Beckett does really well are two things: she has the ability to reduce the complexity of the world to a few large simple shapes, building a strong composition from those shapes. And she uses colour to evoke a coherent and poetic mood. The unity of these pictures is expressed in terms of these simplified forms and subordinate colour. Those talents produce a coherent and rich visual feast.