Artist Clarice Beckett inspires this award-winning debut novel.
Kristel Thornell’s Dobbie and Vogel Award-winning novel Night Street takes the apparently narrow life of interwar Australian artist Clarice Beckett and imaginatively deepens her life’s hue, working with and beyond her biography.
Clarice Beckett (1887–1935) was an artist who so successfully drew on the influences of her time that in some senses she transcended them. Her minimal, sometimes raw, street-, sea- and landscapes were deeply suggestive of not just the properties of light but also the psychological depths of a space that can hold people.
The relationship between a subject and what surrounds it is a strange, determined art. In painting, the lightness or darkness of a colour relies on both the essential nature of the individual pigment and its context. Yellow, with a limited tonal range, will radiate an extra brightness next to black, a pigment with a seemingly endless descent of tints. The essence of something is not just drawn by a sharp black line – the right contrast must be found:
Scraggly, minimal brushstrokes. Nothing but the essential. A rocky brown cliff. The sky and the sea dissolving into dark mist. These were the bones of a landscape, shining indistinctly like bones, a low twilight throb.
The Clarice Beckett of Night Street is placed into these evocative spaces, and her fictionalised story also finds the shape of love. Beckett, in this novel as in life, was an introverted artist. A carer for her infirm parents in the Melbourne bayside suburb of Beaumaris, she stole time for painting in the tenebrous lights of dawn and twilight, walking shore and city trailing a self-made cart with easel and paints. It wasn’t just the uneven light on drowsing landscapes that attracted Clarice, however. She painted the slow car headlights new to outlying roads, a city street slick with rain, lamps and palm trees sentinel over the Victoria Bridge. Modernity interested her for its ability to accept change, its breaking of previous definitions of beauty and achievement.
Beckett’s painting was startling for most of her contemporaries, so much so that she used it to ward off unwelcome suitors. In the novel her father wonders why she accepts ‘spinsterhood and this freakish occupation’, while demonstrating a thin-lipped tolerance for a vocation that he does not assist nor actively deny. His is, perhaps, an unconscious acknowledgement of just how essential painting was to Clarice, who kept even friends at a ‘spacious’ distance:
When [Clarice] thought of freedom, she thought first of the freedom to paint. If she had turned her eyes away from the common shape of a woman’s life, it was in order to fight her true opponent: her art.
After initially training with Heidelberg great, Frederick McCubbin, Beckett’s most profound artistic influence was Max Meldrum, the originator and sole theorist of an art movement he dubbed ‘Tonalism’. Dismissive of the subjectivity of much modern art, Meldrum developed what he saw as a scientific way of painting; one that ranked tone, proportion and then colour as a descending trinity of painterly gospels. If the ‘true’ range of light and shade of an object or scene was identified, the resulting painting could only show an objective truth.
It is in Meldrum’s class that Thornell’s Beckett meets Arthur, a married lawyer gently testing out his meagre talent but immediately aware of her greater one. This recognition sparks a response in Clarice, and an affair, cautious then full-throated, follows; the charge and doubt of love push and pull at Clarice.
Night Street’s Beckett, who – as Thornell makes clear in her author’s note – is not precisely the historical Beckett but the author’s imagining of her, is a vivid character, beautifully drawn. Her squinting but sure vision is the emotional landscape of this book. The novel keeps to most of the contours, broad and specific, of Beckett’s life, but the love affairs and some paintings belong to Night Street only. At times, the novel fairly pulses with a gracefully gestured sense of time. A chapter will begin humming with a consequence that is then unfolded back to its thematic cause:
Years, looked back on, could concertina flat, as if there had not been any space or breath in them, no fluctuating light, no atmosphere. No jubilation, desperation or shifting chameleon states of mind. No contemplation of the moment.
As a contemporaneous analogue to Beckett’s contained impressionism, Thornell conjures up an impressive interwar-sounding syntax; its slightly stocky verisimilitudinous flow is a key pleasure of the book.
The sentence construction, however, reveals the unresolved truth at this book’s heart. Beckett, as an artist and in life, pared away at the extraneous in a sometimes ugly manner, arriving at a rough essential truth: the work is the best, even the only, excuse. For all its considerable pleasures, the gentility of Night Street left me with a feeling that Beckett’s beautifully raw paintings still communicate this best.
Kristel Thornell, Night Street, Allen & Unwin, 2010, PB, 243pp, $23.99
James Tierney is a freelance writer who blogs at A Long, Slow Goodbye and tweets as @ViragoHaus.
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