“Born in Sydney on August 12, 1928, the [Australian] artist, Charles Blackman has drawn and painted some of the most brilliant images in Australia’s modern art history.” (Barry Dickins, “A Poet of the Paintbrush” in Charles Blackman. Macmillan Mini-Art Series No.14. Australia. 2010. p.9).
I was a convent school-girl in 1970 when I first encountered Charles Blackman’s paintings, which is apposite given that school-girls in hats and starchy uniforms figured so thematically in his work. Alice in Wonderland also dominated. I mostly saw reproductions of Blackman’s paintings in art books, but I also saw some original works at the Queensland Art Gallery when it was housed in the Old Queensland Museum (its architectural style is best described as Gothic Horror) at the bottom of Gregory Terrace, Brisbane.
Despite the school girls’ skipping postures and Alice’s floral abundance, the vibrancy of those works were muted by an underscoring of loneliness, threat, and unease.
At the time – and again now in recollection – Blackman’s rendering of the girls’ eyes was haunting. The girls’ eyes – school girls and Alice – were rarely open. They were either cast in deep shadow (sometimes by the shade of their hats, sometimes by the turning aside of their faces, sometimes for no apparent reason at all) or shut tight in solitary meditation. Even when their eyes were open, they seemed sightless – as if they were staring into a middle distance without focus or attention.
Because I liked Blackman’s paintings for his expressionistic use of colour, I did not wonder about this or question its purpose. I was a compliant and accepting viewer; I gazed and moved on. I assumed Blackman’s rendering of the school girls’ eyes was merely his artistic motif, his schtick as it were. When I saw a painting of a girl – any girl – with closed eyes or eyes so deep in shadow that I could not see them, I recognised the painting as a Blackman. Later, when I learnt that his wife, poet Barbara Patterson, was blind, I took Blackman’s painterly portrayal of his wife’s blindness for granted. It seemed a reasonable thing to do, ie to see his wife’s blindness and then to translate what he saw into those shadowy, haunting images.
Lately, I have undergone a more contemplative regard for these paintings. My curiosity about the representation of disability and illness in the visual arts has sent me squirrelling down many rabbit holes – much like Alice! One of those rabbit holes was the Queensland Art Gallery’s exhibition of Charles Blackman’s works, Lure of the Sun, 7 November 2015-31 January 2016. The Queensland Art Gallery’s blog on 7 January 2016 states:
Barbara came to stand for Alice herself. Her struggle with her progressive blindness parallels Alice’s efforts to conquer the mysterious circumstances in which she found herself.
QAG’s claim seems to be informed by the views of the Australian poet, Judith Wright, who was a close friend of the Blackmans, and who corresponded intensely for 50 years with Barbara.
But what did Charles Blackman himself say or write about his painterly renderings of sight and blindness? In turn, what did his wife, Barbara (Patterson) Blackman, say or write about her husband’s painterly records of her trajectory towards blindness; and what did she feel about this? And what have other people (journalists, art critics, disability scholars, educators, et al) written on this theme?
In a 1967 interview with Thomas Shapcott, Charles Blackman said he was influenced by John Shaw Nielson’s poems of school girls:
I thought them very beautiful, and very akin to what I felt myself, in some kind of way: the frailty of their image as such. And there was also the fact – though I did not realise it till much later – that he had very bad eyesight, and he used to write about these things using these emotional powerful throbbing colours …
I was [also] then getting into a kind of vague feeling about painting something about Barbara’s personality, because she didn’t see as well: all these things seemed to coalesce in a kind of way. (Thomas Shapcott. 1967. Focus on Charles Blackman. University of Queensland Press. p.17).
The thing that strikes me most about Blackman’s statement here is that he did not set out to paint “blindness” as a psycho-medical drama, with all the laden stereotypes that particular word carries: vulnerability (cf Audrey Hepburn as the blind heroine in the movie “Wait Until Dark”), alienation and segregation (cf the story of the blind teenage girl in the 1965 Sidney Poitier movie, “Patch of Blue”), horror and panic (as captured to an extreme degree in the 2008 Canadian film, “Blindness”), bumbling foolishness (cf Mr Magoo), or saintliness and triumph over adversity (especially as portrayed in the famous Anne Bancroft- Patty Duke movie about Helen Keller, “The Miracle Worker”). Rather, Blackman saw his painterly challenge more simply and truly. He wanted to capture the essence of his wife’s personality. He wanted to understand her – and to show her – completely; not simply as a vessel containing the darkness of lost vision.
However, in 1997, Barbara Blackman wrote dismissively of her (by then divorced) husband’s “first-ever exhibition, that of the weird little schoolgirls” (“Glass after Glass: autobiographical reflections”. Viking. Australia. 1997.p.151). She wrote:
My blindness is my secret, a locked chamber because nobody has the key. Nobody asks the right questions. They key in their imagination of blindness, the fear, the exotic, the dark into which we all go. But my blindness is luminance … Now the schoolgirls, the Alices, the family icons … they all fade in memory, invaded by light ( p.321).
Barbara Blackman’s words strike a tone of contemptuous territoriality. On the one hand, she seems scornful that people do not really understand her blindness because they (and it seems that she includes her former husband, Charles, in this group of people) do not ask her “the right questions”. On the other hand, her words radiate a smug perversity in her description of blindness as “luminance” rather than “the dark”. For someone who saw writing as her life’s vocation, her words are cloyingly dense, hiding more than they reveal. She goes on even more obliquely:
The schoolgirls are, after all, in transit between the home where they eat and sleep, and the school where they work and play. Transition is perilous. Falls the shadow (p.321).
How and why is the transition perilous? What shadow, what threat is she alluding to here? And how does this threat pertain to her own life, if at all? Or is Barbara Blackman merely playing with words, being coy to suit her own perceptions of herself?
To be continued.