Bea Maddock by Elspeth Pitt
Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).
Terra spiritus… with a darker shade of pale 1993–98 is among the most ambitious and materially complex works made by an Australian artist in the twentieth century. Despite this, it is not well known to a broad public. Its exacting six‑year production involved conceiving, calculating and drawing the complete Tasmanian coastline in range of hand‑ground ochres, before inscribing and printing its place names in Aboriginal and English languages. Eventually, the work came to unfold over 51 sheets of paper.
Bea Maddock is described as a quintessential maker, one capable of articulating matter as eloquent statement.(1) Yet she is also an artist who valued conceptual richness and who privileged divergent readings of her work at different times.(2) Here, the idea of reading is key, since she revered language and literature and used them often in her work.
Early in her career, Maddock placed sparely composed poems in relation to images that formed disquiet and accord between these respective forms of expression. Later, she transcribed philosophical texts as a way to absorb their meaning through her body.(3) Although her use of language in Terra spiritus echoes and expands these qualities, a further imaginative aim is suggested by words kept with her throughout the making of the work: ‘to see a landscape as it is when I am not there. [But when I am in any place I disturb the silence of heaven by the beating of my heart.]’(4)
Despite the presence of language, one of the enduring features of Terra spiritus is its portrayal of an unpeopled and profoundly silent space. Even if one speaks the place names aloud, words float at a remove from their attendant sites as though connected to them only tenuously. Coupled with an indeterminate vantage point, from which it is never clear if the island is being approached or deserted, the landforms Maddock portrays remain resolute and unknowable. They exist independently of language and, so too, of other human concepts, including time and memory.
When considered against a tradition of male‑dominated landscape painting, Maddock’s work is, despite its ambition, curiously anti‑heroic. She does not attempt to master or tame her subject but to signal the impossibility of ever doing so. Yet there is also an ardent effort to know her home and to confront its dark history of genocide and lost language in a clear‑eyed manner. For all its complexity, its privileging of Aboriginal place names also amounts to a simple act of restitution.
(1) Samantha Shellard, ‘Experience the journey: Bea Maddock’s Terra spiritus…’, at blog.qagoma.qld.gov.au/experience-the-journeybeamaddocks-terra-spiritus/, accessed 27 October 2019.
(2) Irena Zdanowicz, ‘“Geography with a purpose”: Bea Maddock’s Terra spiritus’, at jstor.org/stable/43826184, accessed 4 November 2019.
(3) Macushla Robinson, ‘Thinking through the body: Bea Maddock’s Being and nothingness by John-Paul Sartre’, at macushlarobinson.com/being-and-nothingness-by-jean-paul-sartre, accessed 4 November 2019.
(4) The unbracketed part of this passage by Simone Weil is recorded as having been pinned to the artist’s studio noticeboard in Therese Mulford (ed), Terra spiritus… with a darker shade of pale: Bea Maddock’s materials and studio practice, Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston, 1999, p 7.
Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Pitt, Elspeth. "Bea Maddock" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 240–241.
Image caption: Bea Maddock, Terra Spiritus...with a darker shade of pale (sheet 1), 1993-98, stencil print, printed in hand-ground Launceston ochre from multiple hand-cut mylar stencils; letterpress text blind printed; hand-drawn script, 28.4 x 76.0 cm (each sheet), National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Gordon Darling Australasian Print Fund 1998.
ELSPETH PITT is Curator, Australian Art, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.