“Clarice Beckett: The Present Moment” at the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

Born 1887, in Casterton, a rural west Victorian town, Beckett was inspired to paint by her mother. The quiet and sensitive young girl from the comfortable middle class family was also encouraged to study music, poetry, and the classic Greek tragedies, unusual activities in the small rural town. W. B. Yeats and Walt Whitman were to become her favourite poets.

Early charcoal drawing classes provided strong foundations for Beckett’s later artistic insights into content, form and tone. Beckett’s formal art training, however, did not really begin until she was 27. With the help of some family friends who were artists, Beckett was able to persuade her father to allow her to attend the National Gallery School of Victoria in Melbourne. At the National Gallery Beckett came under the tutelage of Frederick McCubbin, one of Australia’s most respected painters and a leader of the country’s impressionist school, and after long hours of anatomical drawing developed into an accomplished draftswoman.

In 1924 she declared that her task was “to give a sincere and truthful representation of a portion of the beauty of nature and to show the charm of light and shade … in correct tones so as to give as nearly as possible an exact illusion of beauty.” – Excerpt from John Christian‘s article “The subtle work of a much-neglected Australian artist”, 22 July 1999

During the 1920s and 1930s Clarice Beckett surrendered to the sensory impressions of her everyday world with such intensity that the force of her painted observations created an entirely new visual language. The extreme economy of her painting tested her Australian audiences, and yet distinguished her as working at the avant-garde of international modernism. Drawn from national public and private collections, highlights include the artist’s famed ethereal images of commonplace motifs such as lone figures, waves, trams and cars.

Driven by spiritual impulses beyond worldly success, she was a visionary mystic that saw nature as all powerful. Through veils of natural light she captured the eternal in the temporal. Accordingly, the 130 paintings in The present moment will be thematically displayed around shifts in time that chart the chronology of one single day. The exhibition will take visitors on a sensory journey from the first breath of sunrise, through to the hush of sunset and finally a return into the enveloping mists of nightfall.

The way this show has been hung is radical but rather beautiful, taking us on a diurnal journey from the first light of dawn to the darkness of night, each stage reflected in the soft gradations of the wall colours. 

Each room in the gallery’s exhibition space is dedicated to her paintings of specific times of the day, from sunrise, to early morning, then midday and sunset, concluding with the nocturnes. She was fascinated with temporal change. The exhibition is very much an experiential journey. Viewers enter through an elliptical portal to an immersive rounded space filled with magnified projections of her paintings, and music from Simone Slattery’s specially commissioned soundscape. 

Beckett was musical too. The transcendence to another realm has begun. The mood changes with each room in the exhibition.

Between sea and sky: a portrait of Clarice Beckett

Visit the Exhibition

Long form articles:




Clarice Beckett, The Artist And Her Circle

by Rosalind Hollinrake

ISBN0333252438 / ISBN13: 9780333252437

The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats

Yeats, William Butler

Published by Scribner (1996)

ISBN 10: 0684807319 ISBN 13: 9780684807317

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