49. CHARLES BLACKMAN
If any proof was needed of the current place of Charles Blackman in the Australian art world, one need look no further than the record of art auctions over the past four decades. Blackman sits on top of the card for the number of appearances in Australian art auctions, just topping eight thousand listings, two hundred more than Pro Hart and four hundred more than Sidney Nolan, the previous chart topper. It is apparent that Australian art lovers and collectors cannot have too much of Blackman, and it is testament to both his appeal and his capacity to produce works in large numbers over a long career. The reasons for Blackman’s popularity are many – his works have an immediate appeal as bright, charming compositions, modern with a contemporary feel yet not too aggressive or confrontational. His subjects, especially the young girls with whom he first made his mark, touched many. The schoolgirls and girls in the street, his depictions of family and friends, touching depictions of his wife, Barbara, and his whimsical take on the world mirror the experiences of most Australians. Pro Hart (1928-2006) appealed because of his capacity to harness the earthy pull of outback life, some authentic experience desired but missing in urban life. Sidney Nolan’s (1917-1992) wide popularity grew from a desire to harness Australian myth and legend, to have our own local heroes in a pantheon of home grown stories.
Like most artists some time in their career, Charles Blackman at times felt the need to reference the art of the past, to revisit those works that lingered in the memory and brought inspiration at times of doubt or need. The present work, Nude and Her Reflection, takes its inspiration from one of the most famous nudes in art history, Diego Velázquez’s (1599-1660) Venus at Her Mirror, universally known as the Rokeby Venus. Blackman has reimagined the work in his own style, using colour and vigorous brushwork for his contemporary take on the quiet and enigmatic seventeenth century original. The Rokeby Venus is the only known nude by the master of Spanish painting, made at a time when the painting and ownership of any nude subject was forbidden by the Spanish Inquisition. It became the most famous painting in the world when acquired by the National Gallery in London in 1905 for the then extraordinary price of £40,000 (some $6 million at current values), especially after the attack on it a few years later by suffragette Mary Richardson. Blackman was not shy in his reimagining of the Venus, choosing to make his work in the same proportion, but in area some fifty percent larger than the original. And whereas the Velázquez is a study in soft greys and whites, with a few muted colours in the drapery and background, Blackman has covered more than half the canvas in rich reds and dark pinks, a striking contrast against the black outlining of the main forms. The direct gaze of the original Venus, reflected in cupid’s mirror, has been subverted, with the reflected image now gazing back directly to the subject, removing the engagement with the viewer that is a key element of the Velázquez. While the original work has Venus’s companion god Cupid provide the mythological link to her very real naked body, Blackman has replaced the child with a mysterious object that could at once be a vase of flowers or a shrouded figure bringing a love token to her bed. In a final twist, Blackman has suggested that the image in the mirror is not a reflection of the subject, given her quite different hairstyle – is it in fact a picture rather than a mirror that engages our rosy Venus? Mystery and intrigue, the key to many works of art and literature, is alive and well in Blackman’s Venus.
Gavin Fry BA[Hons], MA, M.Phil