Menzies Art Brands

CHARLES BLACKMAN, Schoolgirl and Billboards 1954


Charles Blackman came to prominence as a major modernist artist when his now iconic series of schoolgirl paintings was exhibited at the Peter Bray Gallery in Melbourne in May 1953. This exhibition heralded the arrival of a young and profoundly talented artist with a singular vision within the context of contemporary Australian art. The fifties were a transformative decade for Blackman resulting in the themes that have defined his career. The schoolgirls, together with the ‘Alice’ series (1956), are considered the most intuitive, emotionally honest and compelling within Blackman’s enduring oeuvre.

Blackman’s schoolgirls series was inspired by two key French surrealists; Odilon Redon and Arthur Rimbaud. Rimbaud was ‘seminal for his preoccupation with childhood memories and the state of adolescence, the later seen as a kind of becoming, a time when the possibilities of good and evil are greatest.’1 Blackman’s discovery of Redon was even more influential. Redon’s notion of painting what is inside you, and not what you see was for the shy and introverted Blackman, a critical break-though. It is in the spirit of Redon’s ideal that Blackman’s themes and style have evolved throughout his career. ‘These elements of playfulness and the psychological probing of states of innocence and experience are, also, extremely rare in antipodean art. Blackman became their master.’2 

Schoolgirl and Billboards 1954 is a mesmerising example of Blackman’s most iconic motif – the schoolgirl. Painted the year after Blackman first unveiled the series to critical acclaim it presents a rare opportunity to purchase a work from this important decade. Here Blackman depicts a solitary young figure identifiable as a schoolgirl by her wide-brimmed hat. The schoolgirl is presented in profile, face obscured, a trademark of the series. Also typical of the series is the child’s isolation within the scene. Blackman here explores a more literal evocation of the streetscape he represents. He abandons the grey hues that characterise the minimalist voids of many of the paintings, instead using bold colours to represent a wall enlivened with stenciled advertisements for household items, typical of Melbourne’s streetscape during the fifties. The colourful blocks of text, ‘Kiwi Black’, ‘Brasso’ and ‘Silver Star Starch’ set against the vivid blue wall dominate the foreground, almost supplanting the girl as subject. The diagonal line delineating the wall of the adjacent building from the opaque pink surface of the laneway gives the composition a sense of depth. By relegating this empty space to the very edge of the image, Blackman evokes a sense of unease, as the viewer cannot be certain of what lies therein. The primary feeling is of concern for the schoolgirl’s safety. The emotional impact of this painting, like many of Blackman’s images of schoolgirls, seems more about eliciting a deeply personal response to the subject matter, allowing its intangible familiarity to intertwine with one’s own memories of childhood. 

Even among the inspired works Blackman produced of hand-painted advertisements during the fifties, Schoolgirl and Billboards is a stand-out. Though the view of the subject is a relative close-up, Blackman manages to show the viewer how small and vulnerable she is. Blackman experiments with the use of colour, rather than the more traditional expedient of size or perspective, to convey the relative importance of subject and background. Schoolgirl and Billboards suggests a fraught perspective on childhood. The similarly themed The Cigarette Shop (Running Home) 1954, is in the National Gallery of Australia’s permanent collection. 


1. St John Moore, F., Schoolgirls and Angels, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1993, p.1

2. Shapcott, T., The Art of Charles Blackman, Andre Deutsch, London, 1989, p.xi


Alison Burns BA (Hons); MA

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