Hoardings 1954 signed 'BLACKMAN' lower left oil and enamel on board 63.0 x 75.0cm (24 13/16 x 29 1/2in).
PROVENANCE Mirka's Gallery, Melbourne George Pilley, Melbourne, by 1967 Niagara Galleries, Melbourne The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1993
EXHIBITED Blackman Paintings, Mirka's Gallery, Melbourne, 2-13 November 1954, cat. no. 6 Charles Blackman: a Solitary Existence, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 1 June 4 July 1993, cat. no. 17
LITERATURE Arnold Shore, 'Variety seen in art shows', Argus, Melbourne, 2 November 1954, p. 6 Alan McCulloch, Herald, 3 November 1954 Ray Mathew, Charles Blackman, Georgian House, Melbourne, 1965, p. 13, incorrectly titled The Grocer's Shop Thomas Shapcott, Focus on Charles Blackman, University of Queensland, St Lucia, 1967, p. 41 (illus.) Nadine Amadio, Charles Blackman: The Lost Domains, A.H. Reed, Sydney, 1980, p. 72, fig. 5.3 (illus.) Walter Granek, Charles Blackman: a Solitary Existence, exh. cat., Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 1993, p. 1 (illus.), 3
Hoardings is a jewel in the sizable group of large and small pictures that were based on hand-painted advertisements, posters and signs adorning railway platforms and corner shops. Blackman embarked on them after altering the coach house to make way for larger paintings. The artist later recalled that the group started with Skipping girl, based on the Skipping Girl neon sign. As he put it in 'Twenty-five years, a painter':
"Then I surfaced my pictures with immaculately painted signs . . . Perhaps after the Herald Outdoor Art Show, I saw these hoardings on railway stations and factory sites as a full-time outdoor show in themselves. But also the products and their connotations were a honeycomb of sweet nostalgias which reflected back the gestures of children I set against them."
Blackman's pre-Pop Art response to the signwriter's art came out of his newspaper training in lettering. But it also derived from his use of Dulux enamel paints which he bought, for practical reasons, at the local hardware shop, and from his friendship with signwriter Len French. These advertisement hoardings, as Alan McCulloch commented in his review of Blackman's Mirka's Gallery exhibition, "had been the energy of our landscape ever since the first pill advertisements spaced out the miles for interstate-train travellers".
But the 'real life' origin of both his schoolgirl and hoardings paintings began earlier than Blackman had remembered they were prompted by Danila Vassilieff's street scenes of Fitzroy and Collingwood. The Russian Cossack Vassilieff, who was then artist Vice-President of the revived Contemporary Art Society, had visited Blackman's first studio exhibition in the coach house. Vassilieff's lively street scenes of the inner suburbs of Fitzroy and Collingwood (where he lived during the late 1930s) are known for their humanity and earthy humour. They shared in the aesthetic of the Ballets Russes. In Vassilieff's street scene, Children in a Collingwood School 1939 (private collection), the amusing visual play between word and image, for instance the Koze Quilt & Co sign that is caught in the loop of the schoolgirl skipping to keep warm, made a deep impression in Blackman's young and receptive mind.
Blackman's paintings are likewise located in suburban settings. His wordplay is more surreal however and here, in Hoardings, he also colours it with memories of his own childhood and his particular exploration of the feminine psyche. Thus the Skipping Girl Pure Malt Vinegar hoarding, in deep yellow with blue lettering, is the backdrop for a non-skipping girl walking on the pavement. She has black hair and black stockings and she is seemingly stepping into her own flat shadow. Her mission is mysterious but her scarlet coat matches the daring reds that jump out from the 'chance' assemblage of commercial advertisements.
Above the Skipping Girl sign, (which forms a squarish halo for the faceless girl) are several hoardings that invite comic or erotic associations, with the message for Bex, a popular headache cure, namely 'a good lie down'. The Bex sign is a footnote to the Brasso bottle that points into an oval sign; it also shares a border with the cool pillow shape that abuts a steaming cup of coffee, the latter's purity ensured by the white sign for Bushells Pure Coffee in the upper right.
Lettering is a reminder of the importance of words to Blackman. During the formative years of his art (1950-59) he was reading to his wife Barbara at great length, mainly modern French literature with the emphasis on adolescent eroticism. These books favoured 'the immediate cry' and seemed to Blackman to have been created by 'real' artists rather than intellectuals. He was also reciting the hand-painted shop signs to his low-visioned wife on morning walks to Victoria Market. In this exquisite pre-Pop painting these message-ridden advertisements, marginally adjusted, provide a surreal context for the vulnerable human figure.
Blackman's hoardings paintings pre-dated Barry Humphries' Sandy Agonistes monologue on street signs and railway hoardings by four years. They also foreshadow the work of Rosalie Gascoigne and Robert MacPherson.
The original owner of this painting was George Pilley, a member of the Contemporary Art Society who married the dancer Ruth Bergner and later Erica McGilchrist.