Charles Blackman.

Charles Blackman (1928–2018)

Charles Blackman, the celebrated Australian figurative painter who rose to prominence with his darkly fantastical and personal “Alice in Wonderland” series, died yesterday in Sydney, just days after turning ninety. He suffered from dementia for years and had recently moved into an aged care facility. As part of the Antipodeans—a cluster of figurative artists in postwar Melbourne that included Arthur Boyd, John Brack, John Perceval, and Clifton Pugh—Blackman renounced Abstract Expressionism in the time of its ascendency, a stance laid out in a 1959 manifesto cowritten and signed by the group’s members. His haunted, whimsical paintings often grappled with childhood, innocence, and blindness. “Charles painted our dreams,” his son Auguste told The Australian. “The dream of his life was the dream of all our lives.”

Born in 1928 in Sydney, Blackman left school at thirteen to illustrate for the Sydney Sun newspaper. Although he took night classes at the East Sydney Technical College, he was primarily self-taught. In 1951, Blackman married writer Barbara Patterson, whose life would profoundly influence his work and with whom he moved to Melbourne that same year. Between 1952 and 1955, the artist made his well-known “Schoolgirls” series as a response to the unsolved 1921 murder of Barbara’s twelve-year-old school friend. He held his first solo show in 1953. 

Blackman’s most recognizable works sprung out of listening to recordings of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with Barbara as she was going blind. Mingling imagery from Carroll’s 1865 novel with the artist’s personal life, Blackman’s “Alice in Wonderland” series from 1956 and 1957—comprised of around forty oil and tempera works made over a span of a year—won him international acclaim. In Melbourne in August 1959, the Antipodeans staged their lone exhibition, its catalogue written by Bernard Smith (two years later, a counter-group that took the name Sydney 9 set up their own exhibition, enlisting a young Robert Hughes to write the catalogue). After six years of living and exhibiting (at places like Tate and Whitechapel Gallery) in London after winning the Helena Rubinstein Traveling Scholarship in 1960, he resettled with his family in Sydney and turned Birchgrove’s Chiron College into an alternative learning space for emerging artists. For the Western Australian Ballet Company and Sydney Dance Company, he designed sets that retained the bold palettes and psychological depth of his paintings. ”I am a painter of my own interior,” he once said. “But you can’t escape the sky or the sea, or the landscape around you. A lot of my paintings are full of the color of the land itself.”

In 1977, he was given an Order of the British Empire for services to art and culture. A year later, he and Barbara separated after nearly thirty years of marriage. He is survived by six children: three from his marriage with Barbara and three from two other marriages that ended in divorce. In 1993, a retrospective of his work titled “Charles Blackman: Schoolgirls and Angels” at the National Gallery of Victoria toured Australia.