From an Inventive Curator, A Day in the Life of Artist Clarice Beckett

Curator Tracey Lock displays the interwar painter’s tonalist work around shifts in time in a new exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia.

Article by Shaney Hudson

Clarice Beckett, Australia, 1887-1935, The red sunshade, 1932, Melbourne, oil on board; Gift of Alastair Hunter OAM and the late Tom Hunter in memory of Elizabeth through the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation 2019. Photography courtesy of Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

Tracy Lock is building a near-complete – though not functioning – kitchen in a gallery space in the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA). It’s not a conventional choice for the curator of Australian Paintings & Sculpture and is potentially brow-raising given it’s for the gallery’s upcoming retrospective exhibition on Clarice Beckett – an interwar woman painter, who never married, never left the state of Victoria and died at the age of 48. But Lock is a curator known for challenging visitor perceptions and taking chances.

Her 2018 decision to rehang the AGSA’s 700-strong permanent Australian art collection attracted its fair share of attention. Aiming to follow a more fluid, thematic approach, which highlighted the influence of global art movements on Australian artists, Lock was adamant about the benefits of acknowledging Australian art was (and is) not “created in isolation”.

Curator Tracey Lock. Photography by Saul Steed.

“We’ve been the first permanent Australian art collection to pull away from chronology to see Australian art as very oceanic, very fluid,” she explains. “I guess as a curator I tend to be quite innovative in that way.” However, Lock maintains her curatorial methodologies are not just practised for shock value. “[These changes are] only when there is an important point to be made, not just to produce radical juxtapositions. A lot of what I do is absolutely built into history.”

The upcoming Clarice Beckett retrospective, which opens at the end of this month, will see a continuation of Lock’s approach, as she seeks to re-contextualise Beckett’s paintings of suburban life in 1920s and 1930s Melbourne. Now considered considered one of the most important Australian women painters of the interwar period, she was born in 1887 as the oldest of two girls, Beckett was encouraged to pursue art by her mother. After studying for three years at the National Gallery Art School, she sought out the guidance of tonalist Max Meldrum. Under his tutelage, she began to give attention to a scene’s tonal qualities (that of dark and light), in lieu of colour and detail.

Installation view: Clarice Beckett: The present moment, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2021. Photography by Saul Steed.

It was this connection with Meldrum, who was highly polarising at the time, which saw her work dismissed for being part of the ‘fringe’ tonalist (or Meldrumism) movement; critical acclaim was not to come in her lifetime. Yet, Lock says, Beckett’s transcendent modernist paintings seem to capture the ethereal in the everyday. Her oeuvre contains depictions of everything from inviting beach scenes to passing trams and even the earliest known painting of Melbourne’s Luna Park. Lock compares Beckett’s signature soft, hazy brush technique and use of colour to warm breath on a cold pane of glass. “Her works ache with feeling,” she says. “She manages to hold the silence in her paintings and tap into an inner human emotion.”

Though prolific, painting nearly every day, upon her death her father burned the bulk of her work, leaving only a fraction untouched, and as a result her influence on Australian art was largely forgotten in the wider context. That is until what was left of her paintings was discovered rotting in an open-sided shed in rural Victoria by an art collector in the 1960s. Since then her legacy and place in history has been cemented through various exhibitions around Australia.

Given Beckett’s meticulous attention to light and dark, Lock plans to hang 130 of these remaining works to illustrate the span of a single day, from Beckett’s depiction of dawn to her nocturnal work, rather than hanging her work sequentially as tradition would dictate.

Clarice Beckett, Australia, 1887 - 1935, The boatshed, 1929, Melbourne, oil on canvas; Gift of Alastair Hunter OAM and the late Tom Hunter in memory of Elizabeth through the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation 2019. Photography courtesy of Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

“What was clear is that she was absolutely preoccupied with the sense of the temporal,” explains Lock. “I thought it made sense [then] to bring people on a journey almost as though in her own footsteps, through the course of one day. She was very interested in this sort of poetic pulse of the day.”

The replica kitchen Lock is building, which gallery-goers will walk through as they traverse the exhibition, is a testament to Beckett’s own domestic “pulse of the day”. Having refused several marriage proposals, she remained in her parent’s house and, like so many unmarried women of her time, was expected to care for her sick and elderly parents, spending a large part of her day at the kitchen sink.

“In the evenings, she would come in and finish off her colour studies and use the kitchen as a space to stand her little paintings up around the skirting boards and look at them and review them and so forth.” says Lock. “So, her kitchen was her studio. We’re recreating it as the heart’s space of the home in the exhibition.”

Clarice Beckett, Australia, 1887 - /1935, Motor lights, 1929, Melbourne, oil on board; Gift of Alastair Hunter OAM and the late Tom Hunter in memory of Elizabeth through the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation 2019. Photography by Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

Lock feels that Beckett’s work, which by virtue of her limited opportunities for travel focuses mostly on everyday life in her immediate surrounds, will resonate with audiences after an unprecedented year of travel restrictions, closed borders and lockdowns. Her decision to highlight a single-day trajectory mimics the reality of contemporary life, however fleeting that may be, where more than ever appreciating singular passing moments has become the norm, if not the future.

“It seems timely to be looking at an artist that really was neglected, nearly forgotten and didn’t really get to go very far at all,” says Lock. “[Her work shows us] we can still thrive by seeing what’s around us in our immediate environment. Just by painting, she could transport herself.”

Clarice Beckett: The Present Day runs from 27th February to May 23rd at the Art Gallery of South Australia.