At the very start of his career, Charles Blackman painted schoolgirls. As a young artist, he spent three years exploring a recurring image: figures of girls and young women in school uniforms, either at play or lost, depending on how you look at it. The series was inspired by French literature and poetry, as well as two unsolved murders.

Those paintings and drawings represent Blackman’s first major statement as an artist. He was in his early twenties, and a tumultuous adolescence was still at the forefront of his memory.

Schoolgirls, a new exhibition at Heide, covers that early part of Blackman’s career, with pieces pulled from galleries and private collections across Australia and abroad.

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“It’s possible his first inspiration for the series was the murder of a schoolgirl, known as the Gun Alley Murder,” explains Heide curator Kendrah Morgan. The murder had happened 30 years earlier, but in the early 1950s the press had dredged it up again.

Around the same time, a good friend of Blackman’s wife was murdered. Both went unsolved.

“Those images of innocence under threat had a big influence on him,” says Morgan. “He was interested in adolescence as a transitional period in life. There’s innocence in these paintings, but also a sense of the girls knowing more than they seem. I think he was coming to terms with his own childhood.”

Blackman’s father abandoned the family when he was four, and his mother was a compulsive gambler. He and his three sisters were in and out of foster homes and his formal education was cut short at 13. He entered the workforce as an illustrator for newspapers, having learned how to draw and paint from comic strips and books on Picasso.

“When he was painting these he was clearly working out a lot of anxieties and neuroses,” Morgan says.

When Blackman arrived in Melbourne in 1951, he became close to John and Sunday Reed, the founders of Heide and the pair who helped launch the careers of some of Australia’s most influential artists. Sunday was particularly interested in Blackman’s schoolgirl paintings; she bought his work and supplied him with brushes and paints. This support afforded him time to work and effectively kick-started his career.

The earlier paintings in the series initially seem optimistic – Blackman’s training as a newspaper illustrator is clear in his penchant for cartoonish, exaggerated figures – but you don’t have to look at each canvas for long before that facade of purity gives way to disquiet.

Blackman uses long shadows to dramatic effect. The girls’ faces are almost always obscured. They play and wander in harsh, semi-industrial streets inspired by Richmond, Burnley and Fitzroy, which are painted as angular, modernist and oppressive. One girl appears to almost be dissolving into the background. Another piece shows two children looking at a chalk drawing on a wall, but if you look closer, the drawing appears to be a crude depiction of a murder.

Towards the end of the series, the suburban backdrops are gone, and the angular figures of the girls are hunched in grey, blank voids. There’s a sense in the later work that Blackman is identifying with the girls as more than just metaphors for innocence in danger.

“Is she sleeping? Is she dead?“ asks Morgan as we look at the final works in the series, Sleeping Schoolgirl and Floating Schoolgirl, both painted in 1954. “The later ones are far more ambiguous and consciously modernist. But he’s still reflecting on the murder angle.”

Childhood innocence became an enduring theme throughout Blackman’s career, and he later based his most famous works on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Blackman is now 88, and suffers from dementia, but he still draws schoolgirls.

“They’re little studies, often in pen,” says Morgan. Sixty years on, he’s still adding to the series.

Charles Blackman: Schoolgirls runs at Heide from March 4 to June 18.

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