Schoolgirls 1954 enamel on paper on board signed 'CHARLES BLACKMAN' upper right 98.0 x 130.0cm (38 9/16 x 51 3/16in).
PROVENANCE Private collection Australian Paintings, Christies Australia, Melbourne, 11 March 1971, lot 184, 'School Child' Private collection, Melbourne
Charles Blackman's formulation of the Schoolgirl series of paintings which began in 1952-53 was uniquely his own. Informed by the reading of French literature, the imagery of French symbolist Odilon Redon and the influences of his urban existence, Charles Blackman developed powerful imagery that was both spiritual and profound.
Uniformed schoolgirls, ordered and regimented, placed in urban settings with menacing overtones were the vehicles through which Blackman explored the themes of vulnerability and emotion. The first series of schoolgirl works focused on the solitary female figure painted with tempera, enamel and oil on small boards in acidic pinks and sky blues. For him they were obsessive images with a certain ambiguity. The emphasis was psychological with an inner, emotive strength. The contrast of line and shadow, innocence, playfulness and menace were all portrayed with an acute graphic quality that is synonymous with the greatness of Charles Blackman.
In a 1953 review of Charles Blackman's first solo exhibition at the Peter Bray Gallery in Melbourne, the Age critic stated "His expressionist compositions are based on a theme suggested by the line 'Schoolgirls hastening through the light, touch the unknowable divine' taken from a poem by John Shaw Neilson"... "The success of his work rests on colour and pattern. It is through these qualities that he evokes the feeling of wonderment present in the poem". Allan McCulloch, the Herald Art Critic praised Blackman's ability to communicate and for his "undeniable power and artistry".
Charles Blackman's artistic explorations were enhanced by his incessant reading of literature and his first-hand viewing of European modernists Picasso, Rouault, Matisse, Chagall, Braque and Tanguy in the travelling loan exhibition French Painting Today. For Blackman the works of these artists revealed a new freedom with unlimited possibilities of composition, form, colour and space. In later years Blackman acknowledged that for him painting "isn't static [as] it calls for constant renewal and new viewpoints".
Charles Blackman's schoolgirl theme developed on a grander scale. As seen in the joyous Schoolgirls 1954, painted with vivid enamels on large litho paper, Blackman further explored the realm of dreams and surrealism within the framework of the topsy-turvy world of childhood and the imagination. His use of distorted perspective of the building and schoolgirl figures is used to great effect creating a sense of movement within the picture planes. The strong colour sense and the artist's graphic acuity add to the richness of the children at play.
In Schoolgirls 1954 Charles Blackman's intuitive feelings for the wonderment of childhood fantasy are evident. The central schoolgirl figure with ballooning, pleated skirt appears statuesque and concealed by her white, saucer-shaped hat. In the middle ground two schoolgirls are playing hide and seek around a tilted castle, perhaps in their imagination. The tall, shadowy schoolgirl, half concealed by the building adds to a sense of uncertainty with the other schoolgirl about to turn the corner. The setting appears as a drama with the schoolgirls taking centre stage. Dominating the unfolding drama, in the foreground plane, is the central schoolgirl whose identity is concealed by a tilted, white hat. The tilt of the hat also acts a counterbalance to the angled building while the three colourfully uniformed schoolgirls are linked in a triangular design.
Schoolgirls 1954 is a significant and major work from this period in Charles Blackman's exceptional career. It reveals the artist's unique vision whereby form, emotion and the imagination become unified. Blackman's artistic individuality and perceptions of childhood are utilised most effectively to create intrigue and mystery and challenge the onlooker to reassess their place in the environment.
1 Moore, F., Schoolgirls and Angels , National Gallery of Victoria, 1993, pp.2-3 2 J. Cook, The Age, 27 May 1953 3 A. McCulloch," Quantity-And Quality", The Herald, 12 May 1953 4 French Painting Today, A Loan Exhibition arranged between the French and Australian Governments for showing in Hobart, Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth, January September 1953, catalogue 5 Charles Blackman cited in Moore, F., Schoolgirls and Angels , National Gallery of Victoria, 1993, preface