Edith M. Ziegler
Arcadia imprint of Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2022, 271 pages.
In the wider cultural stories of Australia, the once-forgotten painter Clarice Beckett (1887-1935) has emerged as an Australian version of the ‘myth of the artist,’ an impoverished artist whose brilliance was unrecognised in her own lifetime by ignorant critics who constantly savaged her work. A new biography of the artist, The Worlds and Work of Clarice Beckett, by Edith M. Ziegler, reveals this version of Beckett to be an illusion. A historian specialising in Australian history, Ziegler has undertaken the difficult task of writing a full-length biography of the artist, who left no diaries and only two known letters. Ziegler’s writing is clear and direct and supported by detailed footnotes. The book features an informative selection of reproductions of the artist’s paintings and photographs of her family homes. The writer approaches her subject through extensive primary research, exploring Beckett’s family, her education, her communities, her social circle, and her milieu—her ‘worlds’. The towns, cities, and suburbs where the painter lived and worked are richly described, including the bookshops, cafes, and beaches the artist frequented, to build a detailed evocation of Beckett’s environments.
Told as part of the gold-fuelled development of the Colony of Victoria, Beckett’s tragic family history is voyeuristically fascinating. Her paternal grandfather was a charming scoundrel, whose schemes and inexplicable risk-taking behaviour led him from poverty to wealth to insolvency. He avoided the legal ramifications of bankruptcy by abandoning his young family and disappearing completely. His son, Beckett’s father, rebelled against his disgraced absentee father by becoming a dedicated family man, a charity worker, and a respectable bank manager. The writer’s research into the artist’s maternal family, the Browns, establishes Beckett’s mother was an ‘amateur’ artist (her sketches are now in the collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia), and her maternal uncle was the ‘well-known’ but now forgotten Melbourne artist, Montague Brown. Had Ziegler researched Montague Brown further, she would have discovered his circle included the artists Walter Withers, Fredrick McCubbin and Max Meldrum, painters Ziegler later links to Beckett’s art education and career. What Ziegler does do with the artist’s family history is explore themes and behaviour—frugality, loyalty, dedication, stubbornness, responsibility, risk-taking, and artistic talent—across generations and within Beckett’s own life story. It makes for an engaging tale, and the author is careful to present her interpretations and analysis as possibilities, not facts.
The Worlds and Work of Clarice Beckett explores Beckett’s education, bringing to light the work of the trailblazing women who taught Beckett at her schools or in private art lessons, some of whom became the artist’s peers in the professional cultural networks the painter constructed to navigate the Australian art world. Through an in-depth analysis of Melbourne’s insular art world, with its alliances and feuds between rival tastemakers and cultural leaders, Ziegler provides insight into Beckett’s personal and professional life, and context for the contemporary reception of her work. Ziegler establishes the impact on Melbourne’s culture of Beckett’s most important circle—the intellectuals, writers, musicians, and artists gathered around the polemical artist Max Meldrum. Contemporarily known as the Meldrumites, the Meldrum circle or the Meldrum group, these artists are today positioned in art history as the Australian Tonalists. A chapter on the critics of the Melbourne art world, (itself a valuable resource for readers interested in Australian art of the inter-war period), and a survey of the reviews of Beckett’s work, provides the evidence Ziegler uses to question current assessments of the painter’s critical reception. The book’s most unexpected revelation concerns Beckett’s financial position—which was surprisingly impressive, and built on the sales of her art. Previously, the fact the artist lived at home with her parents was understood as a financial necessity, which Ziegler’s biography shows was not the case; rather it was the choice of a woman of independent means.
The Worlds and Work of Clarice Beckett follows another recent publication on the artist, Clarice Beckett: The Present Moment (2020), edited by Tracey Lock, featuring biographical research by Rosalind Hollinrake, and published by the Art Gallery of South Australia. The Present Moment supported the Art Gallery of South Australia’s 2021 exhibition of the same name, for which Lock, the curator, interpreted Beckett as ‘a visionary mystic who painted as an act of self-renewal.’ In contrast, Ziegler appears unwilling to attribute motivations to the artist beyond those stated by Beckett herself. However, in discussing Beckett’s paintings Ziegler relies heavily on Lock and Hollinrake’s interpretations of the painter’s work and the writer supports the current metaphysical positioning of Beckett’s art, exploring the possible origins of the metaphysical in Beckett’s art through an examination of her reading habits and interest in theosophy. However, this confluence of interpretation does not inhibit Ziegler from testing the current understanding of Beckett’s career. While The Present Moment indicated Beckett professionally distanced herself from her earlier association with the Meldrum group after 1924, Ziegler shows Beckett re-established a significant exhibiting relationship with the Meldrum group and participated in numerous Meldrum group exhibitions into the 1930s.
The Worlds and Work of Clarice Beckett will change contemporary understandings of an artist who has been subject to so much mythologising, and as such it is a welcome addition to the scholarship on Beckett. By demonstrating the artist’s career was more successful than previously believed, Ziegler’s biography makes the fact the painter became a forgotten artist for thirty years even stranger. This is something to ponder at the upcoming exhibition of her luminous work, Clarice Beckett – Atmosphere, at Geelong Gallery, 1 April—9 July 2023.
Siobhan Byford is a PhD candidate, Art History, in the School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne. Her research focuses on Australian painting, particularly the school of Australian Tonalism and she is currently writing a biography of Max Meldrum. Her minor thesis (at UoM) was an archival research project, Clarice Beckett (1887–1935): The Artist’s Life and Her Lost Exhibitions, 1887 to 1970