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the worlds and work of clarice beckett : one of our great artists


Of medium size and not too thick, Edith M Zigler’s THE WORLDS AND WORK OF CLARICE BECKETT is a complex, comprehensively researched biography which is divided into eighteen chapters with a preface, notes, bibliography and index. Illustrations are also included. It is basically organised chronologically but jumps around a bit.

A major member of the Australian Tonalist movement, and best known for her atmospheric, misty Melbourne and suburban landscapes,Clarice Marjoribanks Beckett ( 1887 – 1935) is now regarded as  one of Australia’s most important early Modernist painters, who excelled in portraiture, still-life (her flower paintings were particularly well received at the  time) and landscapes, which became almost sensitively abstract. Some have called her Australia’s greatest female artist.

We have none of her diaries and only two letters survive. Beckett rarely signed her paintings and sold only a few works during her life, but Ziegler unearths thought provoking information about Beckett’s financial position. When she was alive and involved in exhibitions, Beckett wasn’t appreciated or properly comprehended by most of the leading Melbournian critics, some of whom wrote vitriolic or patronising attacks in their reviews. (An interesting point is raised – would it have been different for Beckett if she had lived in Sydney?).

The patriarchal expectations of the era prevailed. Born in Casterton, and at various stages of her life living in Bendigo, Beckett never ventured from her home state of Victoria, or overseas. She was the unmarried compliant daughter, who ended up looking after her ailing parents, Kate and Joseph, at their home in bayside Beaumaris.

Kate encouraged Clarice to a degree, but Joseph in some ways didn’t ‘get’ his daughter’s artistic soul. Beckett painted abundantly, often en plein air, in and around Beaumaris, and generally at daybreak or towards evening, when she was excused from her domestic duties. The light was very important to her. We learn that she had a younger sister Hilda, and a troubled disabled brother, Thomas, hidden away in a care facility and never mentioned.  Thomas passed away, very  young, of lung disease, most likely TB.

Zeigler analyses Beckett’s education, highlighting the sometimes avante-garde women who taught Beckett at school or in private art lessons. Some became her friends and colleagues in the interlocking web of the Australian art world of the time. Ziegler closely details Beckett’s private and public life, placing her work in context and scrutinises the perhaps parochial art scene in Melbourne, with its controversy and bitter disagreements between competing trendsetters.

Much is made of the  significance of Beckett’s most important coterie – those  artists, intellectuals, musicians and writers gathered around the charismatic, divisive Max Meldrum. At the time best known as the Meldrumites, nowadays we recognise the artists as the Australian Tonalists.

Beckett also exhibited with the Twenty Melbourne Painters Society and held her first solo exhibition in 1923. While Beckett always acknowledged Meldrum’s influence, her work diverged from other Tonalists, perhaps because of its sensitive, almost intangible aspects and how Freud, Theosophy and Buddhism were interwoven in her life and works. From 1926 we see her landscapes change and even more so from 1930 with more ambitious compositions and a wider colour palette.

Sadly, Beckett caught pneumonia in 1935 when she became soaked while painting a winter storm , passing away four days later at the age of 48.

Zeigler also details the horrendous tale of what happened to Beckett’s works after her death – over a thousand paintings were destroyed in various circumstances. Joseph, her father, burnt some, appraising them as incomplete or substandard – yet her friends regarded them as more metaphysical and leading to abstraction.

A 1944 bushfire meant more were obliterated. Then in 1970 almost two thousand works were discovered in a shed in rural Victoria, badly neglected, many unsalvageable because of damage by the unhospitable climate.

Works that survived led to a 1971 exhibition in Melbourne, sparking a revival of interest in  Beckett’s works and there were various acquisitions made by assorted State galleries .There have since been catalogues and exhibitions examining and promoting Beckett’s work – an exhibition in South Australia in 2021 for example and there is the approaching exhibition at Geelong Gallery 1 April -9 July 2023










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