28. CHARLES BLACKMAN
This remarkable painting came out of the most exhilarating period of Charles Blackman's life when his senses were on full alert and his aspirations as an artist at their height. Having won the 1960 Helena Rubenstein Travelling Scholarship, and settled in London with his family, he was living in Highgate and painting children and old people in parks where he spent long afternoons with his family.
A mixed media composition, Four Children may have begun simply as a large charcoal drawing of children, based on his three year-old daughter, Christabel, and her friend or companion in the park. As such, it would have been made in the converted mezzanine room of their furnished house (before he found a separate studio outside) in Jackson’s Lane. The close proximity of his children to this studio may have contributed to the monumental scale of the figures which, as Sir Kenneth Clark was to observe, ‘feel rather than describe the shape of people’. Blackman’s charcoal drawings were fixed with PVA under Arthur Boyd’s (1920-1990) instruction and this one was exhibited at
The Matthiesen Gallery, 142 New Bond Street, London (cat.36) in November 1961.
Charles and Arthur Boyd regularly went to galleries together and pooled their growing technical expertise. For both of them, London was a doorway to real ‘hand-made’ works of art. Towards the end of the year they were also to visit, with Barry Humphries, the Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) and Georges Braque (1882-1963) exhibitions in Paris.
Charles had already visited Paris more than once, including to represent Australia (with Brett Whiteley (1939-1992) and Lawrence Daws (born 1927)) at the Biennale des Jeunes at the Museé d’Art Moderne.
His experience of Paris would have been a trigger to his introduction of the two athletic outsider figures into the composition. These pitch black figures made it more French, turning it into an international picture, a kind of Biennale des Jeunes. Like two brothers, each costumed in black, one is seated upright, cap on head, arms swinging loosely behind; the other falling backwards on the right, with his collaged legs kicking up and his singular ear - a pale moon-like shape that gleams against the darkness of his body.
The concept of the outsider and the insider, stemming mainly from the writings of Albert Camus (1913-1960), had personal relevance for Blackman, who had long identified with the ‘outsider’ and read the relevant literature.
But the visits to the Goya and Braque exhibitions that preceded the making of Four Children are no doubt an important key to the resolution of this picture. Recalling Odilon Redon’s (1840-1916) fondness for Goya, Charles had already pursued Goya from London to the Prado, and his handling of the blacks pays tribute to the master.
This painting transmits a nocturnal as well as a compassionate quality. Blackman seems to carve out his figures from the dark. The force of the picture arises in part from the encounter between innocence - in the form of the childhood image and pure white dress - and violence in the matter of the paint.
Similarly, there are also distinct echoes of Braque, for example in the exchange between abstract and figurative, in the incised lines, the earthy palette and in the liberal use of textured collage to highlight the sense of touch.
Blackman was able to absorb his sources because he knew the direction of his art and believed that art was essentially autobiographical. His borrowings tend to amplify the humanist mystery of his paintings just as, in the words of the eminent English critic Bryan Robertson (1925-2002), ‘there is a balance between the tenderness and grace of the imagery and the fiercely, implacably controlled means’.
Fresh on the market, this painting has emerged from the private collection of a Melbourne painter, for whom Barbara Blackman used to model, acquired directly from the artist.
Felicity St John Moore