Menzies Art Brands



Charles Blackman (1928-2018) was one of the most significant Australian artists of the twentieth century, rising to prominence in the 1950s for his expressive and lyrical figurative art. During this decade, he became a vital member of the creative community, including as part of the Heide Circle, based at the home of patrons John and Sunday Reed, and also a founder of The Antipodeans. Girl Combing Her Hair is a unique example of Blackmans early work. Dated circa 1951, it precedes his iconic Schoolgirls series (1952-1955), which brought him wide recognition in 1953 when exhibited for the first time at the Peter Bray Gallery in Melbourne. Blackman is the most stimulating, original, and promising younger painter we have seen for a long time, one reviewer proclaimed.1

Girl Combing Her Hair was created during a transformative period of Blackmans life. In 1951, he moved to Melbourne with Barbara Patterson, a writer he had met while living in Brisbane, and they were married in June. The couple settled in Hawthorn, where they lived in a coach-house which Blackman later converted into a studio.2 Barbara occasionally worked as a life model at the art schools and Blackman spent two years working every evening as a cook Barbara described him as very good, producing quick, balletic, pancakes like tissue paper, beautiful omelettes, and three hours washing up.3

The sitter in Girl Combing Her Hair is most likely Barbara, who featured in a number of Blackmans interior works from the early 1950s when the couple lived in Melbourne. Here, she sits with her back to the viewer as she performs an intimate yet also mundane activity, repeating the sort of familiar and rhythmic gesture that encourages wandering thoughts. Blackman portrays the sitter turned away from the viewer, urging us to wonder who she is and what she is thinking. There is a strong impression of introspection, signalled by the presence of the mirror, which refuses to offer a glimpse of the sitters reflection. The palpable sense of self-containment is further emphasised by the peculiar smallness of the room. The sitter appears oversized in context of the rooms compact dimensions - her head much too close to the ceiling, filling the space as if she were a figure in a dollhouse. By illustrating a female figure alone in a dreamlike world, Girl Combing Her Hair is a direct antecedent to many of Blackmans most recognisable works, which return to this theme repeatedly. It also hints at his burgeoning interest in European literature, which became a strong influence and consistent presence throughout his oeuvre.

Blackmans work is held in the National Gallery of Australia, state galleries and also many regional collections across Australia. It is also represented in international institutions such as the Tate Gallery in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In 1977, Blackman was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services to the arts. When the artist passed away earlier this year, just after his ninetieth birthday, he left a legacy of some of Australias most beloved art, a sentiment captured in a review of 1967. Looking at Blackmans is like looking at anothers carefully edited dreams, with everything violent and brutal cut, and only the gentler images and the sweeter harmonies of colour, generally cool and minor-keyed, retained, wrote Donald Brook. They assume the shape and meaning that the viewer projects upon themwe should have to be adamant indeed not to be moved by them.4


1. A Promising Painter, News (Adelaide), 17 November 1953, p.5
2. Blackman, B., The Little Lives of Certain Chairs, a Table or Two and other Inanimates of our Acquaintance, University of Queensland Press, 1968
3. Poets write about their touching story, The Australian Women's Weekly, 25 May 1966, p.15
4. Ghosts, dreams and people, The Canberra Times, 23 November 1967, p.35

Dr Kate Robertson, PhD University of Sydney

We use our own and third party cookies to enhance your experience of our site, analyse site usage, and assist in our marketing. By continuing to use our site you consent to the use of cookies. Please refer to our privacy and cookie policy.