The James Gleeson oral history collection
James Gleeson interviews Australia's major artists
Luna Park c.1951-52
Painting, enamel on cardboard on composition board
69.5 h x 78.0 w cm
26 April 1979
James Gleeson: I see. This is a fairly recent acquisition, and one of my favourites—Luna Park.
Charles Blackman: Luna Park was done after had I lived in Melbourne for a while. Obviously, you can see influences of the work of Nolan and Tucker, who were there at the time. This is when I first started to meet the Australian figurative painters. Before that, when I lived in Sydney, my painting was fairly formal. I was influenced more by Picasso and Matisse and Miro than I was by anybody else.
James Gleeson: Charles, before we go any further it might be a good idea to recapitulate and tell us where you studied, how you began—background information.
Charles Blackman: Not facts and figures, because you have all that facts and figures stuff.
James Gleeson: You were born where?
Charles Blackman: In Sydney. I was born in King’s Cross.
James Gleeson: What date was that?
Charles Blackman: It was fifty and a bit years ago—12 August 1928. I remember that when we moved to Manly we were very poor, my mother and my three sisters. We had to put all our clothes on when we went over on the ferry. I think I had three coats and four pairs of shoes and six pairs of trousers. It was like all these little pobbles getting off the Manly ferry. I left school when I was 13½. Young people who come from difficult, complicated and fractured backgrounds can’t assess what is happening to them. I was fortunate in as much as I had a gentle mother. When I left school there was threat of war and a lot of young men were going into the army. I was too young, so I went to work on a newspaper, where I worked throughout the whole of the war.
James Gleeson: What newspaper was that?
Charles Blackman: The Sydney Sun. It is very hard for me to pin down the exact date, but I think I left there when I was about 19.
James Gleeson: Up to this time you had had no art training?
Charles Blackman: You cannot say that if you have worked for a newspaper you have had any art training.
James Gleeson: Were you drawing?
Charles Blackman: I worked in every department. I worked in the compository department, the shipping department, the Newcastle Sun department, or whatever you like. I did finally end up in the art department, as the boy who washed out all the bottles and the brushes. They all remember me very clearly because I always used a four-letter expletive when they asked me to change the water in their jars. I remain a memorable character in their minds. They were all wonderful people—terrific. I did have a certain talent and they were very encouraging and introduced me to life classes. The moment I got into the life class, my whole concept of art changed totally.
James Gleeson: Where was this?
Charles Blackman: I can’t remember where it was. It was in a funny little broken down old studio down in the Haymarket. It was full of red velvet drapes and strange amorphic beings all sitting around with plaster cast statues. I thought it was all very odd.
James Gleeson: It wasn’t Julian Ashton’s—
Charles Blackman: No; I never went to Julian Ashton’s. I had a friend who went to Julian Ashton’s. He was taught by Dick Gibson, who was obviously a wonderful man and kept saying to me, ‘Why don’t you come along here?’
James Gleeson: Gibbons.
Charles Blackman: That is right—Henry Gibbons. He was a terrific man.
James Gleeson: Yes, so I believe.Charles Blackman: But for some reason or the other, the more he said it to me, the more perverse I became. Then I met a lady poet from New Zealand called Lois Hunter. She was the wife of Louie Johnson. She was a wonderful New Zealand poet and an extraordinary woman. We used to go to the Society of Realist Art life class and she turned up and started talking to us about Matisse, Picasso, Derain, Rimbaud and Verlaine. We had never heard any of these people. It hit us like a bomb and changed our lives. I gave up my newspaper life and took up drawing. That is all I did until I was about 21½, when Barbara and I went to Melbourne. Then I started painting.