It’s a cliché when the death of an artist also represents ‘the end of an era’, but the death of Charles Blackman draws a line under a heroic generation of Australian figurative painters. Although it represents only a small episode in a long career, Blackman was the last of The Antipodeans – a group brought together by art historian, Bernard Smith, in 1959, in defence of “the image”.
It was a time when abstract art was all the rage and figuration seemed to be threatened. Smith gathered Blackman, Arthur Boyd, David Boyd, John Brack, Robert Dickerson, John Perceval and Clifton Pugh into a makeshift movement that lasted for precisely one exhibition. Fred Williams wanted to join, but Smith felt he was too abstract for comfort.
It turned out to be a brief, alarmist moment in Australian art history. In retrospect we know that abstract art had no power to kill off figuration, and Smith’s strident manifesto overstated the danger. For Blackman it was only one chapter in a long career devoted to the creation of the most striking, poetic images.
When we think of Blackman the works that spring most readily to mind are the Schoolgirls he painted between 1952-55, and the Alice in Wonderland series that followed. The Alice paintings, in particular, have become Australian classics, selling at auction for prices in the millions.
On the surface the Alice paintings are colourful, fanciful works, but Blackman was reacting to the disorientation he felt as his first wife, Barbara, was gradually losing her sight. The Schoolgirls were equally ambiguous, as the initial inspiration came from the murder of a 12-year-old schoolgirl in 1921. In 1952 a friend of Barbara’s was murdered in Brisbane, which may also have influenced the series, although the artist denied any association.
It’s a familiar pattern in Blackman’s work, the superficial charm and colour concealing a dark subtext. Look at his work glancingly and one misses the point. Spend a few minutes and it’s impossible to ignore the melancholy. Time and again his figures turn away from us, hiding their eyes and faces. There’s a reticence, an inwardness that distinguishes the artist’s greatest work. The paintings derive their power from the niggling sense that more is being concealed than revealed.
It was a pattern played out in Blackman’s life as well as his art. He was eleven years younger than Sidney Nolan, and eight years younger than Arthur Boyd, but seems to belong to an entirely different world. Blackman came late to the heady days of Melbourne modernism. He was born in Sydney but established his reputation in Melbourne during the 1950s, when he became a protégé of the patrons, John and Sunday Reed, frequenting their home at Heide Park.
By this stage Nolan had split with the Reads and moved to England. Blackman was welcomed as a poetic, figurative painter in the same mould, but his subjects and personality were completely different. Where Nolan sought out local myths, and Arthur Boyd conjured up nightmare visions, Blackman’s work was distinguished by its inwardness.
The pervasive sense of secrecy and privacy one finds in Blackman’s paintings, was a reflection of his own personality. A heavy drinker, he began to suffer from Korsakoff’s syndrome while still in his 60s. Nevertheless, he carried on painting, constantly revisiting the imagery of his glory days.
The best of Blackman’s work stands comparison with anything in Australian art, but he was an uneven painter, prone to repetition and brittle decoration. He had tapped into an inner darkness in producing his greatest pictures, but alcoholism severed that connection. Much of his later work felt like it was done on automatic pilot as variations on familiar themes.
In his decline Blackman was capable of the occasional powerful image, but in his prime he had such an abundance of talent and feeling he might have enjoyed the most dazzling career of any modern Australian painter. Today, at the end of a long and chequered journey we see that talent in fragments. It would be wrong though, to think too badly of him. Mere mortals are rarely equal to the task when the gods bestow great gifts.
Published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 August, 2018