Charles Blackman has been one of Australia’s most celebrated artists for over seventy years, establishing his reputation with his iconic Schoolgirls series (1952-1955) and then Alice in Wonderland series (1956-1957). In August 1959, he participated in Bernard Smith’s (1916-2011) landmark exhibition Antipodeans, the catalogue for which included ‘The Antipodean Manifesto’. This significant essay protested the current trend for Abstract Expressionism and championed figurative art, which Blackman signed alongside Arthur Boyd (1920-1999), David Boyd (1924-2011), John Brack (1920-1999), Robert Dickerson (1924-2015), John Perceval (1923-2000) and Clifton Pugh (1924-1990). The following year, Blackman won the recently-established Helena Rubinstein Travelling Scholarship, and, following the path of many Australian artists, moved to London.
Between 1961 and 1966, Blackman and his family were a vital part of the Australian expatriate community. ‘My contemporaries in London were more or less the same that they were in Australia, except that I probably saw them more often,’ he explained.1 Blackman’s social circle included Arthur Boyd, Brett Whiteley (1939-1992) and Sidney Nolan (1917-1992), as well as other creative men like Al Alvarez and Barry Humphries. 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 An Illusion of Children in 1964, the year they moved from Highgate, where their home was the hub of the Australian creative community, to Hanover Gate Mansions in Marylebone, to an apartment overlooking Regent’s Park. Barbara pointed out they were leaving behind their apartment ‘opposite the graveyard, where our favourite poet, Coleridge, was buried’.3 The couple shared a love of literature, which the artist read aloud every day to his wife, who was blind. This was a constant source of inspiration to Blackman, with the Symbolist work of André Gide (1861-1959) and Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) particularly influential in his early work –there are echoes of this in An Illusion of Children.
In An Illusion of Children, a young girl stands with her eyes closed: what is she daydreaming about? Two ghost-like silhouettes accompany her, uncanny shadows that imply the many layers to her identity, her hidden inner life. Blackman returned frequently throughout his career to this study of shadows, of figures fading and multiplying, echoes of themselves. Such silhouettes feature in several of Blackman’s works from this time, including The Blue Room and Window Shadow, both from 1965. He also painted many images of children during this period, when he had three small children of his own. Barbara commented that ‘Often he picks up the children from school and walks home with them, waits while they have a swing, that sort of thing’, an activity that manifested in his works set at playgrounds including Playground, Children Playing and Children at Play of 1964.4
In a review of a 1967 solo exhibition at Albert Hall, Canberra, Donald Brook cogently described how: ‘Looking at Blackmans is like looking at another's carefully edited dreams…They are haunting pictures, I think, because, like ghosts, they assume the shape and meaning that the viewer projects upon them.’5 It is this fluidity, this undercurrent of emotion, which helped Blackman become one of Australia’s most renowned artists. He is represented in the National Gallery of Australia, all Australian state galleries and many regional collections, and in 1997, Blackman was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of his service to Australian culture.
1. Pierse, S., ‘Australian artists in London: The early 1960s’, Australians in Britain: The Twentieth-Century Experience, Melbourne: Monash University ePress
2. Pierse, S., ‘Australian artists in London’
3. ‘Poets Write About Their Touching Story’, The Australian Women's Weekly, 25 May 1966, p.15
4. ‘Poets Write About Their Touching Story’, The Australian Women's Weekly, 25 May 1966, p.15
5. The Canberra Times, 23 November 1967, p.35
Dr Kate Robertson, PhD University of Sydney