Night Street: Kristel Thornell

In Night Street, joint winner of the 2009 Vogel Award, Kristel Thornell presents a fictionalised version of the life of painter Clarice Beckett. A student of Frederick McCubbin and then Max Meldrum in the 1920s, Beckett produced hundreds of moody, misty tonal paintings of Melbourne streetscapes and bayside landscapes before her death in 1935. Without a studio of her own, she painted outside at dawn or dusk from the mobile easel she built herself.

Beckett’s life can be seen as bound by the conventions of gender roles and middle-class gentility in interwar Melbourne, but Thornell suggests a more complex story below the surface. She skillfully creates a sense of quiet tension between the unadventurous existence of spinster daughter dutifully caring for aging parents, and the ambition and drive implicit in Beckett’s paintings. The artist’s obvious talent and willingness to experiment rather than follow the paths expected of a woman painter of the era are highlighted, and the controlled sexual passion shown running alongside Beckett’s passion for painting provides further evidence of self-determination.

This is an atmospheric imagining of a woman doing things her own way, on her own terms, despite external constraints.