Essays Portraits Charles Blackman

Phil Brown - Art Column

BLACKMAN IN SUNSHINE

A Charles Blackman exhibition explores the artist’s Queensland connections and the influence of his first wife, Barbara, a girl from the ’burbs of Brisbane, writes Phil Brown

It's ironic that the woman who inspired artist Charles Blackman's most famous works has never seen them. Blackman's first wife, Barbara (formerly Barbara Patterson), the girl from Indooroopilly who Blackman fell in love with when they were both only 20, was the muse for his famous Alice series.

One of the treasures in Lure of the Sun: Charles Blackman in Queensland, which opens at Queensland Art Gallery next weekend, is The Blue Alice painted between 1956 and 1957. (The exhibition features more than 50 paintings and works on paper from private and state collections.)

Barbara Blackman, who went blind as a young woman and was married to the artist for 30 years, served as the model for his paintings based on Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Charles Blackman was introduced to the story when Barbara brought home a talking book machine and the couple listened to it together.

"Alice brought some order into the chaos of Wonderland and I brought order into the world of Charles," Blackman recalls. "He said he wouldn't have been a painter without the order I gave his life and the Alice paintings were a reflection of that. But of course I have never seen them because I can't see."

Barbara, who is an author, librettist and patron of the arts, is now 86 and living in Canberra. She and Charles Blackman (he has been married three times, she has been married twice) had three children. They wrote books together and Barbara is still writing and has a collection of essays being published by UQP next year. The Blackmans lived mostly in Melbourne, also in London for a time and on and off in Brisbane for many years. They met here. Barbara, who went to Brisbane State High School then the University of Queens land. int roduc ed Charles to local artists and poets and he went on to exhibit here regularly at the Johnstone Gallery in Bowen Hills.

Betty Churcher identified Barbara as the inspiration for Alice in her book Australian Notebooks. She wrote that Blackman creates a "topsyturvy" world where one can easily become enchanted and disoriented - but not Alice. She resides in her own interior world. Her eyes are calm, if sightless, and she retains her perfect common sense in all situations, unfazed by a world in chaos about her. The painting is really a hymn to Barbara Blackman, the artist's wife, who copes with life without the benefit of sight.

Barbara has lived a long and productive life and still speaks fondly of her former husband, but says she was devastated by his alcoholism, the cause of their divorce. Charles Blackman is still alive but in care due to his infirmity.

He is considered one of our greatest artists and there have been retrospectives of his work, but this is the first to concentrate on his strong connection to Queensland.

Blackman has said that "Queensland had the best influence on me as a person, its sunshine and its lightness of colour and its friendly spirit probably helped me to flower as a personality in some way".

The works in this show exemplify that and Michael Hawker, associate curator Australian art at QAGOMA, stresses that it was coming to Brisbane and meeting Barbara that changed everything for Charles Blackman.

"It was during his first visit to Brisbane in 1948 that the artist experienced the sense of intense personal discovery that was to launch his career trajectory, having found love and the means of artistic expression articulated through a strong and unique visual vocabulary focused on an inner psychological reality," Hawker writes. "Later, in the early 1980s, he settled at Buderim on the Sunshine Coast seeking to energise and renew his art through a series of new collaborative projects exploring the natural environment."

There are some fascinating Queensland paintings in this exhibition including the rather gloomy 1951 painting Self-portrait in front of a boarding house, Spring Hill.

Charles Blackman was torn between Melbourne and Brisbane after meeting Barbara and before the Alice series, which developed early in their married life, there was the Schoolgirl series. Michael Hawker points out that this one, which is also represented in the show, also had a Brisbane connection. "These dark and sometimes menacing images were influenced by the shocking murder of a schoolgirl in Melbourne, as well as the unsolved Brisbane murder in 1952 of Betty Shanks, a university friend of Barbara Blackman."

Hawker says some people will be surprised by Brisbane's influence on Charles Blackman and how much time he spent here. The couple wintered in Brisbane and owned a house at St Lucia for a time.

"And there were a lot of creative friendships forged in Queensland," Hawker says. Blackman was friendly with other painters including Roy and Betty Churcher, the poet Judith Wright and her husband Jack. Blackman also fell in with the Bohemian painter Jon Molvig. Barbara Blackman recalls that Molvig co-opted Blackman to help him teach art classes on the Gold Coast.

"Jon Molvig got to teach all the attractive young women and Charles got the retirees," she wryly recalls.

The iconic Alice series was created in Melbourne and Brisbane between 1955 and 1957. The Blue Alice, purchased for the QAGOMA collection in 2000, was the first painting of the series and is very special. There were 57 Alice pictures in all and Churcher describes them as examples of "Blackman at his lyrical best", inspired, as it happens, by a lass from Indooroopilly.

SEE IT
LURE OF THE SUN: CHARLES BLACKMAN IN QUEENSLAND

Where: Glencore Queensland Artist's Gallery, Queensland Art Gallery, South Bank

When: November 7- January 31

Cost: Free entry

More info:qagoma.qld.gov.au

Charles Blackman first came to prominence in the early 1950s when he exhibited his schoolgirl series of paintings and drawings in Melbourne. Although subsequently his Alice in Wonderland series gave him national acclaim, the schoolgirls remained an ongoing source of inspiration and, for the first time, a good cross-section of these paintings and drawings has been assembled at the Heide Museum of Modern Art.

The paintings have aged, perhaps not particularly gracefully, and in their style, conception and execution appear very much of their time. While all art may be a witness of its epoch, Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly pictures of 1946-47 are to some extent ageless and today have a contemporary freshness and immediacy of the here and now. The Blackmans belong to the 1950s.

The mixture of enamel with oils or tempera on cardboard or masonite is of its time as is the middle ground on which figurative expressionism, surrealism and traditional representational art meet and combine in an uneasy association.

The long-cast shadows, huge eyes, simplified palette and the sense of patterning have a multitude of parallels in preceding European painting, especially Odilon Redon and Marc Chagall, the work of the American Ben Shahn, as well as the Australians Danila Vassilieff, Bob Dickerson, Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, Leonard French, Jon Molvig, Joy Hester and John Brack.

The Sydney-born Blackman, by the time he was 20, moved up to Brisbane where he met his future wife Barbara née Patterson with whom he moved and settled in Melbourne in 1951. Speaking of his schoolgirl series, in retrospect, to the poet Thomas Shapcott, Blackman observed

I just started drawing my schoolgirl pictures; they just came out. That was it. It takes a long time to get to the door; once you pass through the veil or once you pass through the surface of the idea then it all comes pouring out. The schoolgirl pictures had a lot to do with fear, I think. A lot to do with my isolation as a person and my quite paranoid fears of loneliness and stuff like that; and indeed you could almost say why I painted them.

Apart from this cathartic quality, while already working on the series, Blackman was introduced by Sunday Reed to the wonderful verse of John Shaw Neilson that seemed to give him permission to project his own feelings for loneliness and alienation into his subject. In fact, he quoted Neilson’s Schoolgirls Hastening, as the epigraph for his exhibition:

Fear it has faded and the night/ The bells all peal the hour of nine/ Schoolgirls hastening through the light/ Touch the unknowable divine

It has been well-documented that Blackman was aware at the time of the abduction and murder of children, as well as of the murder of a student friend of his wife, and a menacing and sinister note permeates many of the works. There is a quality of a haunting presence, where the schoolgirls seem trapped within a disturbing claustrophobic space – the encounter of innocence with a world in which danger and an oppressive feeling of unease lurk. However, for all of this sense of imminent menace, Blackman’s schoolgirls exist within an age of political innocence.

Today, the idea of a male artist making a major series of paintings about schoolgirls, or about any sort of children, sits uncomfortably with the public. It may have been the unenlightened stupidity of politicians that gave oxygen to the shameful Bill Henson episode, but there was enough public suspicion and vitriol to permit the issue to run in the public arena.

I remember once asking John Brack why there were so many images of schoolgirls in his art and that of his contemporaries in the 1950s and, instead of some profound existential answer, he simply sighed and pointed out to me that at the time he had four young daughters and many of his peers also had children and, coincidently, most of them had a predominance of daughters.

Blackman may not have been portraying his own children; his first daughter Christabel was not born until 1959 and his first son Auguste in 1957, and may have projected his own fears and anxieties onto schoolgirls as a convenient visual metaphor, but public perception has swung so markedly that it leaves little room in serious art making for a Chagall or Blackman painting adolescent girls. Back in the 1950s, Blackman was more under attack for his style and technique, than for his imagery.

As I moved around the exhibition what I admired the most was Blackman’s “awkwardness” in draughtsmanship, the images may have flowed out once the floodgates of the imagination opened, but the drawings have the quality of constant toughness.

About the paintings, the artist noted his “great struggle with the paint” and one can see evidence of constant experimentation, grittiness of the surfaces and a fecundity of invention. I think of them as some of the best paintings that he ever made, at a time before his style became mannered and the sugar content in the imagery increased.

While it is possible in Blackman’s Schoolgirl series to detect a myriad of sources and influences, which one would anticipate in the work of an artist aged in his early twenties, they are some of the most memorable and original works to appear in Australian art in the early 1950s.

Charles Blackman: Schoolgirls is at Heide Museum of Modern Art until 18 June. www.sashagrishin.com

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