AGSA director Rhana Devenport says the gallery will present a “spirited exhibition program” that highlights modern and contemporary Australian art through shows she believes will resonate strongly with local art lovers.
The first exhibition to open in 2021 will be Clarice Beckett: The Present Moment, which will be presented from February 27 as part of the Adelaide Festival and is the most comprehensive retrospective to date of the artist’s work.
The 130 paintings include 21 recent acquisitions by the gallery, with the other works borrowed from 52 lenders across Australia. They will be arranged to chronicle a single day, with highlights including Beckett’s ethereal paintings of subjects such as lone figures, cars and beaches.
“There is an aspect of her work that we felt would really appeal to audiences at this particular time… a sense of contemplation of self, but also of nature and of taking time and slowing down,” Devenport tells InDaily.
“They’re poignant works and they’re meditative works and they reflect and are emblematic of an artist who was very much in the moment in her negotiation with nature and her observation of nature and how the day progresses. And I think we’ve all become a lot more conscious, given that we’ve all been home a lot more, of the progression of the day.”
Beckett was aged in her 40s when she died from pneumonia in 1935, and although she is now recognised as one of Australia’s most important modernist artists, Devenport says she was almost lost to art history.
The fact that she wasn’t is due to a chance meeting in the 1960s between the artist’s sister and art curator and researcher Rosalind Hollinrake, which led to Hollinrake salvaging hundreds of Beckett’s paintings from a shed in Victoria and holding an exhibition of her work.
Beckett did most of her painting en plein air or on the kitchen table.
“She didn’t achieve enormous success during her own life because she wasn’t picked up by a gallery,” Devenport says. “She lived a very modest life.”
In contrast to the work of Beckett will be a major survey of art by Czech-Australian brothers Dušan and Voitre Marek, who arrived in Adelaide in 1948 and are said to have challenged the conventions of Australian art with their ideas.
Dušan and Voitre Marek: Surrealists at Sea, which was originally to have been presented this year until the pandemic prompted a change in programming, will be on display from June 19. It will include paintings the pair created on their sea journey to Australia, as well as Dušan’s surrealist films.
“The show is all about South Australia and radicalism, and experimentation and émigré artists and their influence… it’s a really important art historical show and will be very surprising,” Devenport says.
Surrealists at Sea will be set against the sound of ticking clocks and a music box. It will also be complemented by an all-ages immersive interactive light experience by Patch Theatre, whose artistic director Geoff Cobham created the lighting design for Restless Dance Theatre’s recent project Seeing Through Darkness at the AGSA.
“It’s a variation of the project The Lighthouse (which Patch presented at this year’s Adelaide Festival), and of course it’s all about Marek,” Devenport says.
In a time of so much uncertainty – and with international borders still closed and freight costs skyrocketing – Devenport says the AGSA decided early on to focus on projects it could have full control over and that it knew it would be able to deliver in 2021.
“It streamlined our thinking,” she says.
“These projects (Clarice Beckett and Surrealists at Sea) were already in train, but it allowed us to highlight and amplify them, and to shine the light on the gallery’s curatorial and collection expertise, and that’s really exciting.”
She says a number of shifts are occurring in the museum sector worldwide, including a renewed focus on looking after local audiences, and thinking about “the magic that is your collection… what are the stories that your collection can tell that are different to any other museum”.
“The big international shows will happen again, but in the short term it’s a time to really think about your own strengths, the organisation’s strengths, curatorial strengths, collection strengths and rethinking the collection in different ways, and I think both the Marek show and the Beckett show will do that.”
Other highlights of the AGSA’s 2021 program are:
Dark Matter, Bright Light: An exhibition opening in late December and on display through 2021 featuring major new acquisitions of contemporary international and Australian works, including Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s Dark Matter. “It is a very spectacular and beautiful and contemplative work that plays with perception,” Devenport says.
Antarctica: Five responses: Also opening in December and continuing into next year, this exhibition displays artists’ responses to Antarctic exploration, from images by 20th-century photographer and filmmaker Frank Hurley to works by Sidney Nolan, painter and printmaker Bea Maddock, Adelaide-based contemporary artist Ian North, and sound artist Philip Samartzis.
The Ramsay Art Prize: The winner of the 2021 prize in this competition for artists under 40 will be announced on May 21, with finalists’ work to be showcased in the biennial exhibition.
A Vast Emporium: Artistic exchange and innovation in a global age: A display (from May 1) featuring Indian textiles, Chinese porcelain, Japanese lacquerware and other items from the first age of global trade.
Tarnanthi: In addition to the annual celebration of contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at the AGSA, the biennial state-wide Tarnanthi Festival also returns in October 2021, with works on show in multiple venues across South Australia.