Menzies Art Brands



A Choir for Christabel 1972, is a little-known family portrait that depicts Charles Blackmans daughter singing in their New South Wales home. Christabel had recently taken up piano lessons and music was becoming more and more important in her life, as well as that of her fathers. Blackmans musical passions resulted in wonderful visual records of his children enjoying their favourite pastimes, and ultimately led to the creation of some of his most intriguing and cherished images.

The relationship between music and the visual arts both as a subject and as a source of inspiration has a long and distinguished history. Looking back to the Italian Renaissance and the sensual Venetian paintings of Giorgione (1478-1510), the influential nineteenth century formalist critic Walter Pater wrote of the desire to achieve a synchronicity of the two art forms. All art, he famously wrote, constantly aspires towards the condition of music. For Pater, this was a sign of the burning ambition of visual artists and writers to unify form and content for them to attempt to create visual equivalents for the immediacy, deep revelation and the quickened, multiplied consciousness that many appreciate in great musical scores.

Charles Blackman would have concurred with the same idea. A central tenet of his practice was that art provide a visual platform to conjure dreamy, introspective states and psychic energies. He was not content merely to describe such elusive states, but, like Pater with his unification of form and content, he wanted to evoke ideas, sensations and mystery through painterly means.

To achieve such a goal, many artists have adopted a stream of consciousness image-making process, a style that we most closely associate with the twentieth century literature of James Joyce. Alternatively, artists and writers could strive for a structured ensemble whereby disparate elements were arranged harmoniously across the pictorial surface. Successful pictures imparted a sense of repose and a new reality was formed based on a cacophony of multifarious parts.

Blackmans art owes more to the latter approach. In his paintings and drawings individual elements are rarely allowed to dominate the whole composition. In his well-known Suites paintings from the 1960s, for example, the central motifs are isolated and given equal weight and presence to other components. With this treatment came the capacity to form thoughtful mental associations and create an overall feeling, often introspective in mood. This capacity to combine different motifs in elegant configurations within the one picture became a hallmark of Blackmans mature style.

The Blackman children notably Auguste (born 1957) and Christabel (born 1959) feature regularly in Charles Blackmans art. Early drawings and paintings such as Christabel in a Chair 1968 picture the artists eldest daughter through her fathers eyes innocent, vulnerable and self-absorbed. A Choir for Christabel and later paintings such as Christabel Playing 1975, extend this metaphor to a more mature child. Now she is eagerly engaged in her favourite activities. Surrounded by common household objects and effects, Christabel is given an active voice. There is a more purposeful engagement with familiar interior spaces in which she is placed.

A Choir for Christabel is divided into three compartments. The first section on the left, the largest, presents the primary image of Christabel dressed in classic schoolgirl attire, holding her head erect and giving full and unimpeded voice. She is depicted in profile, facing away from the centre of the picture. Rather than letting the sound slip away into the distance, Blackman diverts the viewers attention back to the middle of the canvas. This is done through the agency of an open door and the inclusion of Christabels reflection. Through these formal devices, Blackman stage manages a complex arrangement of squares, rectangles and shadows on the right of the picture that feature additional elements of a white cat, a table and a bowl of flowers.

The compartmentalisation of the picture and the balancing of key forms play a prominent role in how the viewer experiences the work. Colour and line are also important. Muted browns and dark reds are set against a field of golden yellow. Areas of Flake White and the inclusion of dancing red and white dabs of paint in the rear of the golden area unify the composition and animate it by imparting vitality and life. Thin lines, inspired by Blackmans high regard for the English artist Ben Nicholson (1894-1982), are used to delineate the door. The outline of the door on a golden wall develops an interplay between solid and void and brings an other-worldly quality to the scene.

In the present work, Christabel sings alone but, as the title suggests, the entire picture is animated and engaged by her performance. The flurry engendered by the vigorous rubbing out of the bowl of flowers, the cocking of the cats head and its attentive disposition and the presence of Christabels double each contribute to the overall feel and content of the picture. As in the best works by Blackman, inanimate things are witnesses to and reinforce heightened moments of solitude, self-engagement and introspection.

A Choir for Christabel was produced during a particularly fertile period in Charles Blackmans life. After extended periods spent in Paris and other European cities, the Blackmans returned to Australia in 1971. In 1972, they purchased a rural property at St Albans on the Macdonald River, New South Wales, and Blackman built a small cottage and studio as a painting retreat.1

Several major exhibitions of his work were staged in Australia during the year. An exhibition entitled A Time Remembered was held at Brisbanes prestigious Johnstone Gallery as its closing show. It was here that Blackman showcased some of the new works inspired by music including Playing Mozart 1972, a beautifully nuanced painting in which Christabel is pictured playing the piano in a darkened room.

The culmination of the series was three large pictures, including Girl Listening to Music 1972. This work was later donated by the Sony Corporation to the Sydney Opera House at the suggestion of Blackmans friend Nadine Amadio.2 As Felicity St John Moore reports, these paintings, mostly with dark backgrounds, came about after Blackman developed his passion for listening to music and classical composers following an ear operation. In an interview conducted at the time, Blackman ruminated on how his and Barbara Blackmans lives had changed since they had returned from Paris. From being incessant night owls who frequently went out, they were now spending companionable evenings enjoying music together. According to Blackman, while they had always enjoyed music their appreciation had been enhanced with age, stating: As you become more mature, it grows into a reflective, nostalgic pleasure.3

This feeling of reflective, nostalgic pleasure is central to A Choir for Christabel and its companion paintings, drawings and prints. A love of music, cultivated by Barbara Blackman, and Charles Blackmans desire to convey the sensory feeling of musical scores developed by his favourite French composers, including Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Joseph Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), is coupled with the simple enjoyment of Blackmans daughter expressing herself through song.



1. Morgan, K., Charles Blackman: Schoolgirls, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 2017, p.77
2. St John Moore, F., Schoolgirls and Angels: Paintings and Drawings by Charles Blackman, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1983, p.25

3. Opera House Art Donation, The Australian Womens Weekly, 18 July 1973, p.39


Rodney James BA (Hons.) MA


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