26. CHARLES BLACKMAN
Sweet Shop is a jewel in the sizable group of pictures that were based on hand-painted advertisements, posters and signs adorning railway platforms and corner shops. Charles Blackman embarked on them after altering the coach house to make way for larger paintings. He later recalled that the group started with Skipping Girl, based on the ‘Skipping Girl’ neon sign. As he put it in Twenty-Five Years, A Painter: ‘Then I surfaced my pictures with immaculately painted signs… Perhaps after the Herald Outdoor Art Show, I saw these hoardings on railway stations and factory sites as a full-time outdoor show in themselves. But also the products and their connotations were a honeycomb of sweet nostalgias which reflected back the gestures of children
I set against them.’
Here Blackman’s sweet nostalgic memory unfolds through the honeycomb of jelly and custard signs that interact on the picture plane. Before them stands a young schoolgirl, on one leg, wearing a large school hat and an eye-catching red dress, not unlike an all-day sucker. Her school hat is tilting up towards the yellow ‘Jelly’ sign that runs beneath the pointed gable shape of its ‘Aeroplane’ brand product sign.
In its turn, the illusory world of the mid-grey aeroplane sign collides with the sloping white CUST sign that spreads across the roof-line. One senses that the Dulux readymade blue letters
of this upper case sign are poised to slip down into the fresh jonquil yellow and rounded letters below that are sliced by the picture edge.
Silhouetted against deep shadow, this quirky architectural compote stands on a single wooden post on the station platform. This post is doubly and deliberately ambiguous: sprouting lattice behind the real yellow lettering at the top and out of step with the cropped commercial hoarding board below whose incomplete and teasing messages are misleading. These aborted messages stand on the same path but in a different light to the schoolgirl – a mysterious child who casts no shadow.
In this little gem of a painting, Jelly and Custard Powder seem to set off a kind of chain reaction as the picture evolves out of the process of creation.
Blackman’s pre-Pop art response to the signwriters’ art came out of his newspaper training in lettering. But it also derived from his use of Dulux enamel paints which he bought, for practical reasons, at the local hardware shop, and from his friendship with signwriter, Len French.
But the ‘real life’ origin of both his schoolgirl and hoardings paintings began earlier than Blackman remembered and it was prompted by Danila Vassilieff’s (1897-1958) street scenes of Fitzroy and Collingwood. The Cossack Vassilieff, who was then artist Vice-President of the revived Contemporary Art Society, had visited Blackman’s first studio exhibition in the coach house. His lively street scenes of the inner suburbs of Fitzroy and Collingwood (where he lived during the late 1930s) are known for their humanity and their humorous visual play between word and image. Blackman’s paintings are likewise located in suburban settings. But his wordplay is more surreal, related to the ‘chance’ assemblage of commercial advertisements and also to arguments about abstraction and figuration in the CAS.
Lettering is a reminder of the importance of words to Blackman. During the formative years of his art (1950-59) he was reading to his wife Barbara at great length, mainly modern French literature with the emphasis on adolescent eroticism. These books favoured ‘the immediate cry’ and seemed to Blackman to have been created by ‘real’ artists rather than intellectuals. He was also reciting the hand-painted shop signs to his low-visioned wife on morning walks to Victoria Market. In this exquisite
pre-Pop painting these message-ridden advertisements, marginally adjusted, provide a surreal context for the vulnerable human figure.
Barbara Blackman recalls the day this painting was sold in 1954, the original owner visited Mirka’s Gallery at 9 Collins Street and kept the car waiting outside for over an hour while he browsed the exhibition and, finally, left as the new owner of Sweet Shop.
Felicity St John Moore