When I take my husband for granted, he likes to remind me of the saying: ‘Once truly possessed, never looked at again.’ The French poet, Paul Eluard, says something similar: ‘There is another world and it is in this one.’ An exhibition by the late artist, Clarice Beckett, made me realise how lucky I am to be supported in my writing career.
This week I intended to post something deep and meaningful about the Story Dogs Literacy Program which is my most favourite thing after writing, but I arrived home from a conference exhausted from all the socialising and talking, and when a friend told me the Clarice Beckett exhibition at my local gallery was about to finish, I rushed out to see it.
In the early twentieth century, Clarice lived and painted (mostly) in Beaumaris and the suburbs close to where I live. Like Frederick McCubbin, who I wrote about last week, and who Clarice studied under for three years at our National Gallery School, she painted seascapes and beachscapes and everyday suburban streets.
Clarice had little support in pursuing her art. Because she was caring for elderly parents, her painting time was generally limited to dawn and dusk when her household duties were less demanding.
It is the soft pink light of an evening sky, or the reflection of night on a wet road, that Clarice captures so sublimely. Standing before her paintings, I can smell the freshness of dawn, the salt of the sea, the droppings of a cart horse steaming on a road.
Today Clarice is recognized as one of Australia’s most important modernist artists but during her lifetime she went horribly unrewarded.
Max Meldrum, who strongly influenced her painting, once stated, “There would never be a great woman artist and there never had been. Woman had not the capacity to be alone.”
And in 1924, a critic from The Age newspaper, wrote—One would imagine from the little scenes that Miss Beckett has gathered, in the name of Australian art, that Australia was in a continual state of fog – all kinds of fogs – pink, blue, green and grey with an occasional mist that surely was never on land or sea. Miss Beckett is probably feeling her way through the fogs and no doubt she will […] at least rise above the dreariness which characterizes her paintings at present.
Ouch! How often Clarice must have wanted to give up. As artists, we all have times when it feels too hard to keep writing, painting, sculpting, singing, photographing. But Clarice kept on painting her ‘dreary’ paintings. And in her ‘continual state of fog’, she trundled her paints and easel down to the beach at dawn and dusk to lay down her pink, blue, green and grey mists. She kept on.
Unfortunately, she didn’t keep on long enough. While painting a wild sea off Beaumaris during a storm, she developed pneumonia and died in 1935 at only 48, a year after her mother’s death when at last she might have had more time to paint.
This week I received wonderful news that I have been awarded two residential fellowships at Varuna, the writers’ house at Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, a house gifted to the nation by Mick Dark, son of Eleanor Dark, who wrote The Timeless Land and many other mid-twentieth century Australian novels, and her husband Dr Eric Dark. One fellowship is for a focus week on short story, the other for two weeks next year to further develop my second novel.
Imagine if Clarice had received such support and encouragement. How many more paintings she might have left us to enjoy. Yet, as grateful as I am for both of my Varuna awards, I also remember how many different fellowships I’ve applied for over the years and how many rejections I’ve received.
To be recognised in our own time is not necessarily the lot of an artist. It is not the reason we write or paint, sculpt or sing, photograph or fashion our chosen art. We do it because we must. It is how we live.
Like Clarice, we see another world in this one. We keep on.