The Gallery holds a good selection of Charles Blackman’s work, the quality of Stradbroke ferry 1952 and its connection to the artists early formative Queensland years, and to other significant works in the Collection painted the same year make it one of Michael Hawker’s (Associate Curator, Australian Art) favourite Blackman paintings. The painting also makes a strong connection to the Queensland-inspired works by Sidney Nolan who had an important early influence on Blackman.
The time Charles Blackman spent in Queensland was central to his development as one of the most important Australian artists of his generation. It was during his early visits to Brisbane first in 1948 and then regularly from 1952 that the artist experienced the sense of intense personal discovery that was to launch his career trajectory. One of his most impressive works from this profoundly creative period is Stradbroke ferry 1952, which can be seen in the new Australian Galleries rehang.
In February 1948, Blackman visited the Moreton Galleries in Brisbane, and saw an exhibition of works by Sidney Nolan, inspired by Nolan’s time on Fraser Island (three of which can be seen in the Australian Collection).
Deeply impressed, Blackman later told curator Laurie Thomas: ‘What I liked about them was that they were dark, mysterious, almost surreal’.1 ‘Trapping the inner feeling in the paint’ was how he later described these and Nolan’s Queensland outback works.2 Nolan’s Moreton Galleries exhibition revealed to Blackman the power of a painting to articulate a clear and particular vision. Stradbroke ferry strongly references this Nolan influence, depicting the ferry to this popular island holiday spot at night, the application of paint evoking the jewel-like lights of the ship and coastal settlement reflected in the sea. Blackman rented a cottage on Stradbroke that year where he painted, sending ‘back to Sunday Reid about fifty small pictures on quarter size boards of birds, beaches, boys leaping off rocks, and shy white horses’.3 The environs of south east Queensland clearly inspired the young artist.
Through his friendship with Barrett Reid, Blackman was introduced to the art patrons John and Sunday Reed in Melbourne, and, through them, saw Nolan’s early St Kilda works.4 In 1952, before Blackman left Melbourne for Brisbane, Sunday Reed presented him with a leather plumber’s bag filled with brushes and small tins of Dulux enamel paint. That same year, once in Brisbane, Blackman painted Barnes Auto, Brisbane 1952 and City lights 1952. The bright, glossy surface of both suggests they may have been painted with house paints, possibly those given to him by Sunday Reed. Equally so with Stradbroke ferry which also uses enamel paints.
This painting effectively links the work of avant-garde artists and writers of 1940’s and 1950’s Brisbane with their southern counterparts and is an integral part of the story of Australian art in the years immediately following World War Two. The artistic expressions of this work are articulated through a strong and unique visual vocabulary focused on an inner, psychological reality, which found its inspiration in the artist’s immediate environment at the time.
1 Thomas, Laurie. ‘The Most Noble Art of Them All: The Writings of Laurie Thomas’, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Qld, 1976, p.171.
2 St John Moore, Felicity. ‘Charles Blackman: Schoolgirls and Angels: A Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings by Charles Blackman’ [exhibition catalogue], NGV, Melbourne, 1993, p.5; Nolan’s Queensland outback works from 1948 were viewed by Blackman at the David Jones Art Gallery in Sydney in 1949.
3 Ibid, p. 17.
4 Examples of Nolan’s St Kilda works were held by the Reeds at their home in Heide.
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Michael Hawker is Associate Curator, Australian Art, QAGOMA
Feature image detail: Charles Blackman’s Stradbroke ferry