Menzies Art Brands



Charles Blackman established his position as one of Australias most significant artists early in his career, creating his iconic Schoolgirls series and Alice in Wonderland series in the 1950s. During this period, he became a central part of the community of artists in Melbourne. He was a member of the Contemporary Art Society, and in 1959 signed the Antipodean Manifesto, protesting the increasing dominance of non-figurative art along with several of Australias most significant artists, including Arthur Boyd (1920-1999), John Brack (1920-1999) and Robert Dickerson (1924-2015).

These relationships extended to the expatriate community in London, where Blackman and his family moved after he received the Helena Rubenstein Travelling Scholarship in 1960. During the five and a half five years the Blackmans lived in London, their homes were a hub for fellow Australians, such as Arthur Boyd, Brett Whiteley (1939-1992), John Perceval (1923-2000), Sidney Nolan (1917-1992) and Barry Humphries (born 1934).1 The artist said my contemporaries in London were more or less the same that they were in Australia, except that I probably saw them more often, and his wife Barbara remarked 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.2

Blackman painted Three Figures c1965 in London, where he had a studio in his apartment at Hanover Gate Mansions, Marylebone. On a background of green and blue stripes, three ghost-like figures emerge in variegated streaks of pink and white. These are uncanny silhouettes, with the vague forms clearly human in shape but transparent, with the semi-opaque paint revealing glimpses of the background behind them. This unease is heightened by the most striking feature of the work, a face that materialises, in part, in naturalistic detail. The sharp, flattened features are familiar in Blackmans work: framed by the suggestion of a cheekbone and chin, there are red lips pressed flat, a pointed nose and the blue-rimmed eyes typical of many of Blackmans figures. The shadowy silhouettes of Three Figures appear in several of Blackmans works during this period, such as The Night Watch, The Blue Room and Window Shadow, all painted in 1965.

Blackman was stimulated by literature by authors such as Andr Gide, Alain Fournier and Raymond Radiguet, which he would read aloud each day to his wife Barbara.3 He was also inspired by travel while living in London, he made frequent study trips  to Paris, Madrid, Venice and Amsterdam.4 In 1967, Donald Brook wrote an evocative description of Blackmans work: They are haunting pictures, I think, because, like ghosts, they assume the shape and meaning that the viewer projects upon them. Whether we regard them as offering insights into the human condition, or merely as providing an opportunity for indulgence in delicious sadness, we should have to be adamant indeed not to be moved by them.5

Blackmans art is represented in the National Gallery of Australia, all Australian state galleries and many regional collections, as well as in international institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He has held solo exhibitions in Australia, and also London and Tokyo. Blackman was recognised for his service to Australian culture when he was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1997, but his status as one of the most beloved artists in Australia
is epitomised in the Art Series Blackman Hotel, dedicated to his work.

1. Pierse, S., Australian Artists in London: The Early 1960s, Australians in Britain:
The Twentieth-Century Experience, Monash University ePress, Melbourne
2. Pierse, S., Australian artists in London.
3. The Canberra Times, 23 November 1967, p.35
4. Coppel, S., Out of Australia: Prints and Drawings from Sidney Nolan to Rover Thomas, British Museum Press, London, 2011
5. The Australian Womens Weekly, 25 May 1966, p.15

Dr Kate Robertson, PhD University of Sydney

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