27. CHARLES BLACKMAN
For an entire generation of creatively minded Australians in the early 1960s, London was the place to be. Offering a heady fusion of post-war counterculture and consumerism, the city was yet to cede its position to New York as the global centre of Western art. In the decade between 1955 and 1965, London attracted nearly all the leading figures of Australian modernism: Arthur Boyd, Brett Whiteley, Michael Johnson, Sidney Nolan, John Perceval and Charles Blackman. As Blackman recalled, this coterie of expat Australian painters represented ‘Quite a sum of forces of nature, of painting, from this country. And we all saw each other. Being there at that time, it was unique in history, I think.’1
Charles and Barbara Blackman ventured to London in early 1961, following Charles’s receipt of a Helena Rubenstein scholarship in August 1960. After a brief period living with Arthur and Yvonne Boyd, the Blackmans rented a house in the northern suburb of Highgate. The Blackman’s home became ‘the pungent - or punchy - centre of the Australian exiles,’2 with Barry Humphries and Robert Hughes joining a host of regular drop-ins. The atmosphere was lively and collegial. As Barbara Blackman recalled, ‘We saw much of one another […] in those five years in London when our lives seemed to flow close together, to intertwine and follow common currents. There seemed to be endless parties, most of them at our house.’3
The Australians found a vital patron in Bryan Robertson, then Director of the Whitechapel Gallery in London’s East End. Having visited Australia in 1960, Robertson embarked upon plans for a major survey show of contemporary Australian art; Recent Australian Painting was subsequently held at the Whitechapel Gallery during the summer of 1961. The exhibition proved a momentous success, affording Australian modernism unprecedented popular and critical attention in Britain and continental Europe. British scholar Simon Pierse regards the exhibition as ‘perhaps one of the most significant events in post-war Australian art history.’4 In a letter to his friend Hal Missingham, then Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Robertson’s tone was suitably euphoric:
The show is being the most phenomenal, overwhelming success. We can scarcely keep pace with all the developments, and the continuing pressure from visitors. The gallery is very crowded from morning till night, and although I say myself, I must say that the presentation is impeccable and the general impact is extremely exciting. It makes a great spectacle. We have got enormous tropical plants and trees in the Gallery, some of them Australian, and the place blazes with light and colour.5
Accordingly, Recent Australian Painting was received with enthusiasm by the British press. J D Pringle of the London Observer declared Blackman to be ‘the discovery of the exhibition’, applauding the artist’s willingness to stray from what he regarded as Australian painting’s ‘obsession with the outback’.6 With Robertson’s support, Blackman was able to build upon the momentum of Recent Australian Painting with an appearance at the Biennale des Jeunes in Paris, followed by a major solo exhibition at London’s Matthiesen Gallery in November 1961.
Reflections occupies an important place within Blackman’s oeuvre – and indeed, within the history of twentieth-century Australian art – as one of only three works by the artist to feature in Recent Australian Painting. The work is an important example of Blackman’s Faces and Flowers series, conceived during the artist’s time in Queensland in the late 1950s, when Charles and Barbara were living in close proximity to the flower farms of Mount Tamborine, near Brisbane. The Faces and Flowers pictures emerged in the immediate aftermath of Blackman’s much celebrated Alice in Wonderland paintings, and the two series are closely related in their depiction of female subjects alongside vibrant natural forms. Although the Alice pictures are perhaps better known today, Blackman’s Faces and Flowers ‘were to be his first break-through to a wider art-loving – and buying – public.’7 Whereas the Alice series referred to an external narrative, the Faces and Flowers paintings were presented as individual compositions which were more or less self-contained. Art historian Thomas Shapcott writes that ‘If the Alice paintings still had vestiges of other artists’ influences, however attenuated, the faces with flowers were to be something commandingly and decisively Blackman.’8
As with many of Blackman’s works, Reflections is disarming in its apparent simplicity. The painting shows a young woman seated at a table, her reddish hair and even features closely modelled on those of Barbara Blackman. The woman’s gaze is cast downward as she idly handles a mug and empty plate, in an apparent allusion to Barbara’s ailing vision. A large vessel of native flowers dominates the composition, their jagged fronds reverberating throughout the painting’s roughly rendered surface. The artist’s use of colour is rich and immersive, ranging from deep turquoise to lapis, and punctuated with touches of yellow. The table is gently tilted towards the viewer while at the same time emphasising the shallowness of the picture plane; in this way, Blackman effectively creates a pictorial world that is at once self-contained and inviting.
Within the Faces and Flowers paintings, the floral arrangements are more than mere props – as Blackman reveals, the flowers are intended to reflect the essential qualities of the sitter:
[...] the flowers evoked the people, in a certain kind of gentility, or substance, or reverence, or sensitivity … almost like … the flowers gave the person the identity as well as the person gave the flowers the identity [...] the human beings evoke a certain kind of mood because flowers were present.9
As with many of the Faces and Flowers paintings, Reflections contains a series of apparent incongruities. The flowers, ordinarily symbols of peace and purity, appear coarse and hard-edged. The woman’s boldly articulated form belies her inner vulnerability. The painting’s enveloping stillness is broken by the small movement of the woman’s hand which appears deeply shadowed, with an almost photographic intensity. The subject’s facial expression is somewhat difficult to read: while Thomas Shapcott has drawn attention to the woman’s ‘exhaustion and accumulated suffering’,10 others have emphasised the tenderness and serenity of the overall scene. The title of Reflections would perhaps favour the latter interpretation.
Reflections is a painting that rewards prolonged and repeated viewing. As Thomas Shapcott observes, ‘It is a painting of implication, not explication. It is the inner sensitivity that we are made aware of, not the external show.’11 Appearing at auction for the first time in over four decades, Reflections was conceived and exhibited at a particularly auspicious time in Charles Blackman’s career, when the artist’s domestic successes were matched with unprecedented international acclaim.
1. Shapcott, T., The Art of Charles Blackman, André Deutsch Limited, London, 1989, p.4
2. Pierse, S., 'Australian Artists in London: The Early 1960s', in Australians in Britain: The Twentieth-Century Experience, edited by Bridge, C., Crawford, R., & Dunstan, D., Monash University ePress, Melbourne, 2009
4. Pierse, S., ‘Recent Australian Painting (1961): A Jardin Exotique for London’s East End?’, Australian Studies, 2005, vol.20, p.322
5. Ibid., p.332
6. Shapcott, T., Focus on Charles Blackman, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1967, p.55
7. Ibid., p.36
10. Ibid., p.38
Catherine Baxendale B Phil (Hons), MA (Art Curatorship)