Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Art giant Charles Blackman turns 80

AS he turns 80, Charles Blackman is almost the last man standing of his generation of artists. Boyd is gone, so too Nolan, Brack, Perceval, Tucker and Williams. Our conversation with the giants is almost at an end. In his Australian Painters, James Gleeson had this to say about Blackman: "There is nothing really mysterious about a Blackman painting -- only something very, very rare, for he is the most truly tender and warm-hearted of our contemporary Australian painters. By some trait of personality, he has been able to preserve a child's sensitivity to people and objects." Then there were years of alcoholism that injured his mind. We find him standing with friends at the Mossgreen Gallery in Melbourne. They are looking at a drawing he has done of a girl with a face in the knee, Girl and Angel. "People say, 'It doesn't make sense!"' he says. "I say, 'Nothing ever does when you make pictures'. What you do, is you use your imagination. That is what good drawing means to me." Blackman is celebrating his 80th birthday with a collection of more than 100 previously unseen works from his own collection, ranging from pen and ink drawings to bronzed maquettes and a tapestry. He is a small, gentle man, with tiny hands and mischievous eyes. ... Mossgreen director Paul Sumner observes that Blackman's most memorable images might be his depictions of schoolgirls in hats and shadows and vulnerable adolescents -- subject matter that modern society is still uncomfortable with, as the recent reaction to photographer Bill Henson's images is testament. Blackman says he followed the Henson controversy with interest. He thought there was nothing wrong with Henson's artistic purpose, although perhaps photography "doesn't quite arrive at the point of what art means". Blackman was born in Sydney in 1928, but his artistic career began in Melbourne in the 1950s in a loft above a stable in Hawthorn with paintings of interiors and childhood. He became famous for "psychologically evocative imagery centered on themes of childhood, femininity, alienation, fear and blindness". The only boy in a family with three girls, whose father walked out when he was four, he painted women, biographer Nadine Amadio wrote, "in a fashion rarely ventured by other painters reaching into the emotions, the dreams and the inner world of women". His first wife Barbara's blindness drew him into darkness, but resulted in imagery that was "both illuminating and disturbing in its intensity". It was as though he was making his art vibrant enough for the blind to see. Asked whether he is still working, Blackman responds: "Yes, of course I am. Why would I give it up? You do the drawing because it exists in the mind and the heart of the painter."

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