Night Street Kristel Thornell Essays

Winner, Dobbie Literary Award, FAW Barbara Ramsden Award, Sydney Morning Herald's Young Novelist Award, and The Australian/Vogel Literary Award

Night Street is the passionate story of a young painter, Clarice Beckett, who defies society's strict conventions and indifferent art critics alike and leads an intense private and professional life. With her extraordinary talent foWinner, Dobbie Literary Award, FAW Barbara Ramsden Award, Sydney Morning Herald's Young Novelist Award, and The Australian/Vogel Literary Award

Night Street is the passionate story of a young painter, Clarice Beckett, who defies society's strict conventions and indifferent art critics alike and leads an intense private and professional life. With her extraordinary talent for making simple city and seascapes haunting and mysteriously revelatory, Clarice paints prolifically and lives largely, overcoming the seemingly confined existence.

Inspired by the art and life of the Victorian artist Clarice Beckett (1887-1935), Night Street is the story of a painter who, having remained unmarried by choice, continues to live with her ageing parents. Hers is an existence which, from the outside, appears both restrictive and monotonous. In fact, it masks a vibrant and passionate hidden life. With a mobile painting trolley in lieu of a studio, Clarice makes her way through the streets and coastline of Melbourne at dawn and dusk where she creates sombre, enigmatic landscapes. Through her art, she enters into a world of sensuality and freedom, away from the constraints of a conservative and disapproving society.

Thornell is a beautiful writer. Her evocation of the painter Clarice, who fights against societal conventions whilst being pushed, to outwardly adhere to them, is powerful, eloquent and moving. The clarity and simplicity of Thornell's writing resonates through the book, highlighting its undercurrent of fervour and passion, as it propels the narrative forward with a masterful sense of poetic urgency.

Night Street began with Thornell's first encounter with the paintings of Clarice Beckett at the Art Gallery of South Australia. The subtle power of Beckett's enigmatic landscapes enabled her to imagine Clarice's inner life and shape an extraordinary novel....more

Her work is a contradiction to those more typical portraits of an ochre, or sun-drenched Australian palette, peering forward into the moments of those most visually delicate, changeable and veiled parts of the day – dawn, dusk, and the mysteries of objects, forms and light shimmering in mist, fog, rain. For Clarice, in her other role as daughter of the house, is confined to practising and perfecting her art only at those limited times of the day. We might wonder, though, whether the terms ‘confined’ or ‘limited’ are appropriate; perhaps ‘release’ and ‘freedom’ are more valid.

Here, in a letter to a friend, Clarice refers to an art critic’s newspaper review of her work, as giving ‘the viewer an impression of looking through an opening’. What the critic is referring to is the revealing of a scene, through the quickly applied play of paint, of something barely perceptible, the application of a momentary event within the most mundane, often uncomfortable – and visually murky – settings, such as a road (hence the novel’s title), an automobile, a street lamp, a shadow, the condensation in the air and the light that creates the entire experience. In the broader context to this English study theme of the ‘imaginative landscape’ you may see these things for yourself if you look at the existing legacy of art left behind by the real Clarice Beckett.

In another sequence from Night Street the author explores Clarice’s preference for muted colour schemes, and the complaints from others, including art critics who haven’t understood nor moved on from the late 19th century, that her work is ‘‘dismal’’ and dreary: ‘‘Clarice revelled in the quiet sumptuosity, or moody turbulence of greys … The lowered light of overcast skies, rain or fog was good for painting, making it easier to distinguish tonal differences. Full bright sun did not show you their delicate divergences … so that you were not quite sure in what order you were receiving nature’s impressions’’.

These revelations into the perceptions and techniques of an individual, independent artist who breaks from tradition, raises the subject of life choices and vocation – a realisation that there is nothing else that means as much. In other words it is the knowledge and the discovery dawning inevitably that this – whatever ‘‘this’’ may be – is the reason for why you were born. Her vocation, itself, is the imaginative landscape.

Thornell’s novel, for example, deals with two love relationships that not only cannot survive, but are inextricably bound into Clarice’s passion as an artist, and her status as a woman living in conventional and conservative times: ‘‘Waiting for love was like waiting for a revelation. You had to be patient … An artist had to bring to the craft a free spirit, a spirit capable of falling in love continually with everything, everyone, and devoting itself to the daily labour of this love. How could such a woman’s spirit sustain itself tethered by law, religion and duty to one man?’’

It is likely, within this passage, that through Thornell’s narration Clarice is offering an unstated comparison to her own mother, known throughout as ‘‘Mum’’, ‘‘tethered’’ to the more formal ‘‘Father’’, the humourless and uncomprehending head of the household.

Art as vocation, and vocation as an expression of freedom, self and identity, are nowhere more strongly realised than in the following extract: ‘‘… a moment had finally come in which she knew, truly understood she was a painter … She felt the weight of her vocation. The startling freedom of it. She was born to this. No Clarice outside painting, she was Clarice because she was a painter and she was a painter because she was Clarice.’’

This psychological, mystical revelation is emphasised at the novel’s conclusion, where the artist heads out to create her final painting, the one that will kill her. Here, Thornell paints a vision in words of Clarice Beckett not only surrounded by the landscape she is painting, but becoming part of it, disappearing into eternity, and apotheosis: ‘‘There was electricity in the air … bright messages flashing over and above any normal communication … she was going to paint her way into the storm. Everything was splendid, and as it had to be.’’

Further reading and viewing:

Rosalind Hollinrake, Clarice Beckett, the Artist and Her Circle, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1979.

Jane Hylton, Modern Australian Women: Paintings & Prints 1925-1945, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2004.

Tracey Lock-Weir, Misty Moderns: Australian Tonalists 1915-1950, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2008.

Websites:

Kristel Thornell’s website (includes video of author’s lecture about Night Street):

http://www.kristelthornell.com/

Clarice Beckett (includes links):

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarice_Beckett

http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/beckett-clarice-marjoribanks-5178

Essay by Drusilla Modjeska:

http://www.drusillamodjeska.com/downloads/DrusillaModjeska-FramingClariceBeckett.pdf

Roger Stitson is a former secondary teacher, and freelance writer. His website is at www.rmsed.com.au.

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