49. CHARLES BLACKMAN
Fear it has faded and the night.
The bells all peal the hour of nine.
Schoolgirls hastening through the light
Touch the unknowable divine.
John Shaw Neilson Schoolgirls Hastening
The first truly unique visions to emerge in his painting, Charles Blackman’s Schoolgirls were pivotal to establishing his reputation as an artist of great individuality and promise. Indeed, reviewing his first solo exhibition at Peter Bray Galleries, Melbourne in 1953 – a classic succés de scandale – art critic Allan McCulloch was quick to recognise and applaud the new talent:
…In the hands of merely a competent painter such a subject would be ludicrous. In Blackman’s hands, John Shaw Neilson’s schoolgirl becomes a creature of endless aesthetic possibilities. With literally nothing in the way of subject matter to help him, this young artist has created a series of paintings which are at once exciting and extremely stimulating. This then – the degree of inspiration that an artist can wrest from his subject – must surely be the test of an artist’s powers.1
Commenced in 1952 following Blackman’s move to Melbourne the previous year, the Schoolgirl series was inspired initially by the reality of the artist’s new environment – the neighbourhood of Hawthorn where, travelling to and from his coach-stable studio, uniformed schoolchildren were a daily sight. More profoundly however, the series resonated with his underlying fear of isolation, a fear that was poignantly reawakened by the recent, notorious murder of a schoolgirl near the old Melbourne markets – ‘the jagged, savage image that childhood is alone’2 having a direct and anguished effect on the artist.
With their tenderness and lyricism, such images also reveal Blackman’s insight into the female psyche – a legacy of vivid childhood memories of his mother and sisters that was revived by his reading of the literature of childhood fantasy, particularly French novels of adolescent eroticism such as the Claudine schoolgirl series by Colette. Interestingly, it was not until well after Blackman had embarked upon the theme that he was made aware of the John Shaw Neilson schoolgirl poetry to which his work is often compared. Admiring especially the semi-blind poet’s emotional use of colour, Blackman found the mystical verse ‘very beautiful and very akin to what I felt myself in some sort of way… the fragility of their image, as such, and their being a kind of receptacle… of very delicate emotional auras.’3
Occupying a realm between dream and reality, Blackman’s schoolgirls thus present a myriad of emotional states and entities – from vulnerable and self-absorbed to dangerously clumsy, haunting and even predatory. In Schoolgirl and Buildings 1952-53, the protagonist notably veers towards the former – with her uniform enclosing her in a kind of rigid armour, she is reticent and withdrawn, engaged in a moment of introspection. Where other schoolgirls in this urban, hostile landscape flee towards some safe destination – the comfort of a streetlight or telephone post – she instead seems paralysed by an overwhelming sense of melancholy or loneliness, perhaps reflecting the artist’s own emotional state. Indeed, as Blackman recalls,
…The schoolgirl pictures had a lot to do with fear, I think. A lot to do with my isolation as a person and my quite paranoid fears of loneliness and stuff like that; and indeed, you could almost say why I painted them. I probably should have been an actor or something, because of my ability to project. They were my audience and I created them to dig what it is that I felt.4
1. McCulloch, A., The Herald, 12 May 1953
2. Blackman cited in Amadio, N., Charles Blackman: The Lost Domains, A.H & A.W Reed Publishing, Sydney, 1980, p.14
3. Blackman in an interview with Thomas Shapcott, 6 September 1966, cited in St John Moore, F., Charles Blackman: Schoolgirls and Angels, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1993, p.6
4. Blackman cited in Shapcott, T., The Art of Charles Blackman, Andre Deutsch, London, 1989, p.11