Gripping Work of Art from a Key Series

     

     Charles Blackman, Man in Night Landscape (1955)

   

     

In December 1954 Charles Blackman and his wife Barbara journeyed to Avonsleigh,

Ferntree Gully, in the hilly outskirts of Melbourne, where, for six months, they lived

next door to Joy Hester1. It was Blackman’s introduction to country life. After

painting all day he would walk to the town with Barbara and Joy. The nightly

experience of returning home in the dark, without a torch, relying on the moonlight to

guide their way, led to him producing a series of haunting moonlit landscapes on

paper2. By comparison with oil paint and canvas, paper was cheap and portable and it

gave direct results. Unfortunately for posterity, those qualities made the paintings

appear all too disposable to the artist, who was in the midst of a highly self-critical

period: “I would have destroyed seventy percent of what I did” he told James Gleeson

in 1979 — “a shame because they were much better than I thought they were.”

  

“One night I had a giant bonfire of all these piles of paper and Joy Hester said to me,

‘Charles what are you doing?’ […] ‘[D]on’t burn those. Wait until tomorrow’. She

broke me of the habit.” 3

So we have Joy Hester to thank for the survival of Man in Night Landscape (1955)!

   

The work of Charles Blackman holds a firm place in Australian art history. Beginning

his artistic career in the 1950s when Australian art, and Australia as a country, had a

tendency to look beyond Australia, Blackman’s work reaches beyond immediate and

regional concerns45. His best art is psychological in nature, focusing on the dislocated

relationships between solitary figures and their environments. Like Barbara

Blackman’s poetics, the sensibility is tied to narrative, with a lingering aftertaste. His

body of work is built on reoccurring icons and motifs, later work referencing early

experiments in an exchange of ideas that adds resonance to his oeuvre as a whole.

  

Blindness is an overarching theme in Blackman’s work. Through the 1950s his first

wife Barbara, a poet, was going blind; together, they found some solace for future

darkness in the work of the blind poet Shawn Neilson, particularly his descriptions of

colour6. From this time Blackman identified with the isolation and vulnerability that

may be associated with blindness;7 he showed his subjects surrounded by dark

shadows, their eyes in sunken pits, blacked out, or obscured by the brims of their hats;

a child’s embracing arms blindfold the mother; and schoolgirls bury their faces in

floral bouquets.

   

Man in Night Landscape is an early work to project the dislocating state of

sightlessness. Eerie moonlight distorts the landscape’s familiar forms. The figure

glaring over his shoulder is wary of his environment. His one gleaming eye appears to

be straining against the darkness. In this image of a frightened traveller glaring at the

night and its obscure offerings Blackman gives concrete form to the fraught transition

between seeing and not-seeing.

  

- Hester Gascoigne

     

Charles Blackman, Man in Night Landscape (1955), to feature in upcoming Australian and International Art Auction 

  

1 Granek, W., Charles Blackman: A Solitary Existence, Museum of Modern Art at Heide,

Melbourne, 1993.

2 Moore, F., Charles Blackman: Schoolgirls and Angels, National Gallery of Victoria,

Melbourne, 1993.

3 Blackman, C., in an interview with Gleeson, J., 26 April 1979,

nga.gov.au/Research/Gleeson/pdf/Blackman.pdf, (accessed 26 Jul. 2012).

4 Eagle, M., & Jones, J., ‘The Culture of Cities’, in A Story of Australian Painting, Macmillan

Australia, Sydney, 1994.

5 Shapcott, T., The Art of Charles Blackman, Andre Deutsch Limited, London, 1989.

6 Blackman, C. op. cit.

7 Granek, W., A Homage to Charles Blackman OBE, The University of Sydney Union,

Sydney, 1998.

8 Shapcott, T., op. cit.