By Kristel Thornell
In the first Clarice Beckett landscape I saw, two trams were passing one another in a milky, bluish haze. The simple scene was somehow recognizably of the early twentieth century, and yet timeless. I had never heard of this Australian, who lived from 1887 to 1935, working for most of the interwar years with breathtaking stamina—despite much criticism for not conforming to the artistic fashions of the day—before she was largely forgotten for decades. Beckett’s paintings are often resolutely spare. They show straightforward stretches of city and suburban road, seaside views, country fields. What is involving and even transcendent about them? Her wondrous restraint and instinct for the moody merging of tones generate atmospheres that are resonant without being quite fathomable. A haunting airiness. The viewer’s imagination is teased beyond those crepuscular streets, or those plain telegraph poles against a rainy sky and sea, the landscapes seeming to only barely belong to the physical world.
Beckett’s quietly heady paintings strike me as images of reverie, exalted introspection, contained yearning. I fancied they also represented the shoreline mingling history and fantasy where the writing of Night Street occurred. I knew I couldn’t have written a novel that kept strict faith with biographical fact. It felt necessary to try to hold the stark facts of her life in a gaze as soft-focused as the one that produced some of the most dreamlike, open-ended meditations on landscape in Australian art.