This tapestry-sized painting of a picnic outing harks back to Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe 1863 (Musée d'Orsay collection, Paris) and to deeply personal memories of Blackman’s family life.
His first wife, the poet Barbara Blackman, who also was the model for his famous Alice in Wonderland paintings, sits on the right turning into the space. Her feeling arms are clawed as they reach towards the picnic basket and the arm of one of her three children.
The painting resembles a photographic negative, an image fading, almost lost in time; perhaps the bittersweet memories of a once shared past. The reflections of a dining chair, the blue stocking legs of one of the children pushing ever upwards and an extra hand waving at the viewer suggests echoes of happier family days. And as a snapshot it is a summary of Blackman’s feelings during the early 1980s when the reality of his recent divorce from Barbara (who resigned from the marriage) had hit home.
Blackman painted this unique work after living in Paris and London and absorbing real handmade works of art and the richness of the European tradition. But as always with Blackman’s work his ability to reference and learn from the masters is intermingled with his own emotional and environmental surroundings. The foliage in the background of this work is reminiscent of his new studio (and new wife) in Buderim, North Queensland. His three and a quarter acres of land became a welcome winter studio; beneath the tangled lantana he finds a buried garden with jasmine, coach wood trees, leopard trees and its very own carpet snake. This paradise garden became Blackman’s own Garden of Eden.
The cut-out shadow in the foreground of a cat refers to another of Blackman’s series of paintings – the White Cat’s Garden paintings from the late 1970s. The Blackmans always owned cats; they were part of the family; and just as they wandered in and out of the various Blackman houses through the ever-open bathroom window, their figures slink, slide and stalk Blackman’s oeuvre.
The silence in The Blue Picnic is palpable. One feels a sense of reverence and admiration, not only at the sheer size of this work but also at the way Blackman tenderly strokes out his children and ex-wife with a loose, fast brush, gently decorating their bodies with passages of dusty pinkish patterning. Although the father/artist figure is absent from the scene, you can feel his heart pouring into the surface as two of his children turn away from him into the idyllic tropical landscape.
The painting also recalls Blackman’s autobiographical works of the mid 1970s exhibited at Brisbane’s Johnstone Gallery where he painted three large memory pictures on very dark grounds on the theme of ‘A Time Remembered’. These works centred on musical themes and were later donated by Sony to the Sydney Opera House, negotiated by the music critic and author Nadine Amadio.
The sources of Blackman’s late works lie firmly in the Symbolist movement of the late 19th century in the quest for a synthesis of the arts. That aesthetic ideal, embracing the idea of artistic creation as the ultimate mystery and value with its corollary, of art as a way of life, always informed Blackman, ever since his early days as a member of John and Sunday Reed’s artistic circle at Heide.
Felicity St John Moore
Felicity St John Moore is an art historian. She was formerly a curator at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, for seven years before becoming Guest Curator of Special Exhibitions at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Her publications include Vassilieff and his Art (1982), Classical Modernism: The George Bell Circle (1992), Charles Blackman: Schoolgirls and Angels (1993) and Sam Fulbrook: Racing Colours (1995).