Menzies Art Brands



Charles Blackmans schoolgirl paintings of 1953 brought the artist to the fore of Australian art in a forthright and positive way. Seemingly from nowhere, a new artist was on the scene, producing work that was striking, memorable and worthy of critical recognition. Blackman might have been just twenty-five years of age, but his journey, like many of his generation, had forced maturity upon him all too soon. Born in Sydneys Northern Beaches in 1928, Blackmans father had left the family just five years later at the height of the Great Depression. The family moved to Queensland where life was tough, even for families with a reliable breadwinner at home. Blackman returned to Sydney and had to leave school as soon as he could to help support the family, his fifteenth birthday coming as Australia experienced its fourth year of total warfare. Too young for military service, he took what jobs he could find and he was fortunate to secure a position as a copy boy at the Sydney Sun. While untrained, his skills in drawing led to illustration work on the paper, the useful training ground for many aspiring artists. He was able to attend night classes at East Sydney Technical College for the rest of the war years, benefitting both
from good tuition and the opportunity to mix with like-minded young students.

At the end of the war Blackman moved to Melbourne, determined to make a fresh start in a new city and, in 1951, he took the important step of marriage and the creation of a new family. The Contemporary Art Society, revitalised after a period of stagnation during the war, was a good introduction and he met up with younger artists like Robert Dickerson (1924-2015) and John Perceval (1923-2000), as well as the more experienced such as Arthur Boyd (1920-99), Joy Hester (1920-60) and perhaps most importantly, Danila Vassilieff (1897-1958). Similarly his introduction to John and Sunday Reed, by then well established as the major patrons behind a number of Australias best known artists, provided an important entre into the world of the professional artist.

Like Sidney Nolan (1917-92) and Albert Tucker (1914-99) before him, Blackman found particular inspiration in the work and friendship of Danila Vassilieff. The exuberant Russian had burst onto Melbournes art scene in the 1930s and his vigorous depictions of Melbournes inner suburbs brought a new life to the citys reactionary art world. For Blackman it was Vassilieffs children that captured his imagination they play in the streets, gaze up at the artist and own the footpaths with their confidence and bravado. As subjects they had great appeal to an artist whose own childhood had been blighted by war and depression, yet when he reached into the same subject matter he came up with a very different interpretation.

In 1953 Charles Blackman put forward an exhibition of paintings entirely around the theme of schoolgirls wandering in the street, playing in the schoolyard and scuttling down back alleyways. These girls are not the boisterous Fitzroy kids who charmed Vassilieff, but a mysterious and troubling cohort who look away from the viewer, averting their eyes and taking refuge beneath their big straw hats. Mostly they skulk about alone, or sometimes take another into a close huddle of whispered confidences and secrets. We rarely see their faces and never look into their eyes, remaining anonymous and, because of their uniforms, without individuality of any kind. They are metaphors for a dark and troubled life, inward looking and impenetrable. They have a degree of innocence and purity, but we never know what might be the workings of their young minds. While it has been suggested that their broad straw hats denote a private school uniform, and therefore a world of privilege and distance, in fact such hats were the standard uniform of nearly all such girls in Melbourne high schools in the early 1950s. Their world is suburban, schools with paved playgrounds and tall brick classroom blocks as forbidding as any convent.

Just one year after Blackmans schoolgirls exhibition he presented a variation on the theme that brought a whole new dimension to his work. The schoolgirls again feature, but instead of wandering dark streets and treeless playgrounds, they inhabit public spaces bright with advertising signs. In the days before television, most advertising was concentrated in two main domains printed in newspapers and magazines or else erected in the street, attached to every shop, fence, railway bridge or sundry structure that might be seen by the passing trade. Each sign was designed to outshine its neighbour unlike television and radio, where advertisements were sequential in time, the billboards had to fight for the attention of passers-by. Catchy titles and signature colours were important, especially when seen from a speeding car, train or tram. Blackman knew the rules all too well, as hed worked to produce the catchy ads in the black and white pages of the daily paper. To modern eyes used to huge photographic billboards and computer generated type, there is a quaint, nave quality to the old billboards that crowd Blackmans walls. Such signs were often hand painted, or stencilled onto metal plates in bright vitreous enamel. The cubists had shown that the inclusion of type in a work of art brought immediacy, an emphasis on the flatness of the ground rather than some imagined world beyond the picture plane. Blackman played with the mundane and everyday world of boot polish, cigarettes and laundry starch as a contrast to the unseen menace that often seemed to haunt his schoolgirls in the street. Some stare blindly at the coloured walls, while another runs quickly past a hairdresser where cigarette ads cover every inch of wall space. Is she afraid, or just heeding her mothers advice not to go hanging about the shops?

Blackmans Skipping Girl eases away from the darkness, presenting a rather lighter and more engaging image. Our schoolgirl now faces the wall, skipping lightly while she reads the advertisement for her own brand of vinegar. Skipping Girl became an iconic brand because of the huge neon sign that stood above the factory in Victoria Street, Abbotsford, just across the Yarra from Blackmans home in an old coach house in Hawthorn, the neighbouring suburb to the east. Generations of children would marvel at the animated sign, the first of its kind in Australia, with the skipping girl and her flicking rope lighting up the night sky. (Such is the affection of Melbournians for the sign that it has been classified as an historic item, to be preserved in situ). The artist has dispensed with any sense of a building behind the signs, for now we are pressed close to the wall, with most of the signs fragmented and cropped. We are in the street with the skipping girl, not removed at a distance where we can observe from the shadows.

The schoolgirls and street signs speak of Blackman at his best. The Alice in Wonderland paintings were darker and more complex and he went on to produce a large body of work justly lauded by collectors around Australia, but the works of the early 1950s show his vision with great clarity and purpose. The street signs presage pop art and his urban vision was a jump ahead of the landscapes then dominating Australian art. Importantly, the works of 1953 and 1954 mark the maturity of Charles Blackman as an artist who would come to the fore in the next decade.

Gavin Fry BA [Hons] MA MPhil

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