Charles Blackman was born in Sydney in 1928; he spent his childhood in Queensland before leaving school at the age of thirteen to work as an illustrator and subeditors copyboy at the Sydney Sun newspaper.
He was largely self-taught, but did attend night classes at East Sydney Technical College from 1942 – 45. Blackman married Barbara Patterson in 1951. Barbara was intelligent, her courage and love, and her involvement in the literary fields proved to be a stabilising factor, which allowed Blackman to paint full time. Due to a tragic accident at birth her eyesight rapidly declined but she was to become a lasting presence in his work. They moved to an old coach house in Hawthorn, Melbourne in 1952, became friends with Robert Dickerson, Danila Vassilieff, Arthur Boyd, John Perceval and Joy Hester and gained support of art critic and art patron John Reed. Recognition of his stature as an important artist increased when he exhibited his critically acclaimed Schoolgirl paintings.
In 1953 Blackman was co – founder of the Melbourne Contemporary Art Society and he was also one of seven artists responsible for the Antipodean Manifesto; these artists protested the dominance and rejected the rise of abstract expressionism and non – figurative art.
New images appeared in his work, the advertising hoardings of Melbourne inner city streets and the haunting moonlit scenes around Avonsleigh in the Dandenong Ranges where the Blackmans lived for five months in 1954.
However, these early paintings were overshadowed by his next series, the large and spectacular Alice in Wonderland paintings, inspired by Lewis Carroll’s book, Alice in Wonderland.
Blackman is a complete romantic. His work has been described as poetic and probes the delicate world of human relationships. His art speaks tenderly of grief, guilt, loss, persecution and the joy of dreams and memories. He explores the gesture of affection and empathy and his wealth of images have included the dreamlike and enchanting melancholy paintings of women and flowers, children absorbed in daydreams, the serene White cat Gardens and beach scenes.
James Gleeson wrote in Art and Australia, 1963 “Few artists have attempted to probe the delicate world of human relationships with such broad weapons as Blackman uses. He takes a spade to uncover the most sensitive nerves, or an axe to chop his way into the mysteries of loneliness and love”.
Charles Blackman is regarded as one of the most original and significant figurative painters in Australian art. He lived in London for six years after winning the Helena Rubenstein Scholarship in 1960, and his work was included in the Whitechapel Open Exhibition in 1961 and in the Tate Gallery exhibitions of Australian art in 1962-1963.
In 1993 Felicity St Moore curated a major touring retrospective exhibition, Schoolgirls and Angels organised by the National Gallery of Victoria. And to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most important series in Australian art, the National Gallery of Victoria exhibited the complete Alice in Wonderland painting at the Ian Potter Centre in August and October 2006.
In 1997 Blackman was awarded an OBE for his services to art. He is represented in all state and most regional galleries and in many private collections around the world.
Ken McGregor 2009
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