Charles Raymond Blackman OBE was born in King’s Cross, Sydney in 1928. His father abandoned the family when Charles was four, leaving Charles’ mother working long shifts as a waitress at Circular Quay. The family were very poor and moved to Manly where Charles and his siblings were looked after by Dalwood Homes. After a severe case of the mumps, Charles left school at age 13 and went to work for the Sydney Sun newspaper, first as a copy boy and then later as an art cadet. He attended night classes in drawing at the Meldrum School of Art and the Sketch Club in Haymarket. In the 40s he met Lois Hunter, a New Zealand poet, who introduced him to the work of writers and artists such as Matisse, Picasso, Derain, Rimbaud and T.S. Eliot. They attended life drawing classes at the Society of Realist Art together. Blackman credits her as the inspiration for him giving up his newspaper work and taking up drawing full-time. He went with Hunter to Brisbane in 1948, where he met his future wife, poet Barbara Patterson.
In 1951 Blackman and Patterson moved to Melbourne and married. It was during his first year in Melbourne that he discovered the bayside suburb of St Kilda, where he would travel by tram to swim, draw and visit Luna Park leading to a series of paintings on the same theme.
In 1952, Blackman became one of the so-called Heide Circle of artists, which included Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker and Joy Hester, centred at Heide, the home of art patrons John and Sunday Reed, in the city’s outer suburbs. Blackman’s first major series, Schoolgirls, created between 1952 and 1955, has long captured the public imagination. Accounts of the unsolved murder of Barbara’s childhood friend, Betty Shanks, inspired the paintings which centre on a schoolgirl figure, often depicted in eerily empty streetscapes, as a symbolic embodiment of urban loneliness and alienation.
Patterson inspired Blackman’s unique approach to art as she had optic atrophy and began to slowly go blind, relying on Blackman to be her eyes. This sharpened his own observational skills, leading him to focus on the face. Blackman and Patterson would listen to audio books together, including Alice in Wonderland, which came, in turn, to influence his own art.* Blackman’s Alice series, produced from 1956 to 1957, includes more than 40 paintings of vivid and surreal imagination and earned Blackman critical acclaim.
In 1959, Blackman became a founding member of the Antipodeans, a group of seven artists reacting against the advance of abstract expressionism and non-figurative art.
After being encouraged by Sir Kenneth Clarke to exhibit his works in London, Blackman applied for, and received, the Helena Rubenstein Travelling Scholarship in 1960. He moved to London for six years, where he exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery and the Tate Gallery. Returning to Australia in 1966, he eventually settled back in Sydney. In 1970, he was awarded a Cité des Artes scholarship and spent a year in Paris, a city he found inspiring and would return to often in later years. Later, in 1979, he moved to Buderim, on the Gold Coast, and spent some of his later years travelling and painting the lush vegetation of Northern Queensland.
In 1982, he collaborated with the Sydney Dance Company in Dialogues, Daisy Bates and later Spindrift for the Western Australian Ballet Company. He died in August 2018, a week after his 90th birthday.
Blackman began to exhibit in Sydney in 1953. Exhibitions in Canberra, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, London and Tokyo followed. A major retrospective of his work, Charles Blackman: Schoolgirls and Angels, was held at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1993. The NGV (Federation Square) also held a Major Exhibition of Charles’ ‘Alice in Wonderland’ series, from August to October 2006.
As well as the travelling scholarships, Blackman won numerous art prizes including the Crouch Art Prize in 1960. Blackman was appointed an Officer of the British Empire in 1977 for services to Australian contemporary art.
Blackman is considered one of the most important figurative painters in Australia. Spanning painting, drawing, sculpture and tapestry, Blackman’s artistic practice invites us into worlds where anything is possible. Blackman is best known for his Schoolgirl and Alice series and his haunting images of sad girls and women, often absorbed in daydreams, oblivious to reality or detached from their surroundings. He crafted a unique artistic vision exploring the dualities of the human condition: innocence and experience, fantasy and fact, dreams and nightmares, beauty and savagery.
His figures invariably have large, expressive and often dark eyes and Blackman conveys narrative events from his character’s point of view, by using exaggerated angles and strong directional light. Blackman said: “Painting, to me, is not all an autobiographical thing. It’s things you observe around you, or you are interested in what other people do with their lives. It’s a simple straightforward activity.”
However, Blackman developed a cynical view about the business side of the game, saying it did not have much to do with money unless you were “an art dealer, bank manager or crook”. Having given away or sold most of his best paintings for very little, he filled his home with his works, but only copies, dryly remarking he was “too poor to afford an original Blackman…”
The National Gallery of Australia’s obituary sums up Blackman’s contribution: “He brought a freshness and directness of perception, as well as a sense of poetry, to his art across diverse media. A great observer of the world around him, his work over several decades was enlivened by his imaginative inner life and informed by his profound feeling for the human condition.”
Blackman’s works are represented in Collections across Australia, including the National Gallery of Victoria, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Australia and many other state and regional galleries, corporate, university and significant private Collections throughout Australia as well as at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Tate Gallery in London.