Charles Blackman is renowned for his images that explore the duality of life: innocence and experience, fantasy and fact, dreams and nightmares, beauty and savagery. In 1956 Blackman heard for the first time Lewis Carroll’s extraordinary and bizarre tale of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – the story of a Victorian girl who falls down a rabbit-hole and encounters a perplexing array of characters and circumstances that force her to re-assess the world as she knows it. It was read by the BBC announcer Robin Holmes on a talking book that the artist’s wife, Barbara Blackman, listened to whilst suffering from progressive blindness. The story of Alice moving through a tableau of irrational situations, constantly frustrated by various events, paralleled Barbara’s own experiences, and Blackman painted the Alice pictures for Barbara and ‘to give sight to her poetry’. (F. St John Moore, Charles Blackman: Schoolgirls and Angels, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1993, p. 19.)
Feet beneath the table, 1956, is a classic image from the series. Alice (a portrait of Barbara), with her high forehead, golden hair, prominent nose, red lips and large, absorbing eyes, offers a calm presence in an otherwise absurd world. The white rabbit appears seated to both her left and right, and the table is laden with two large teacups and a teapot that seem to levitate. The most disturbing aspect of the composition is, however, the various assemblages of single feet and pairs of feet that reside underneath the table.
Blackman’s materials of tempera, oil and enamel paint on Swedish hardboard had been developed with John Perceval and gave him the freedom to work with a particular intensity:
The medium had a lot to do with the immediacy of the paintings. Tempera acts as a catalyst with enamel and as they dry at varying speeds they might flow into each other. Explosions might erupt. The discovery of this medium allowed me to work with spontaneity and seize the evocative power of the image as it opened. (Charles Blackman, quoted in N. Amadio, Charles Blackman: The Lost Domains, Sydney, 1983, p.26.)
The series was completed when Blackman was working at night in an East Melbourne cafe and painting by day in his loft in Chrystobel Crescent, Hawthorn. There were times when he felt that the character of Alice was so much part of both worlds, especially with the association of tables and the idea of tea-time. At the cafe it always seemed to be tea-time and Blackman was the only chef:
If a hundred and fourteen dinners were ordered, I had to cook and serve a hundred and fourteen dinners. So I took the Rabbit with me into the kitchen as a kind of medium. The Rabbit helped me in the kitchen and I helped the Rabbit when I went home. I would get up early in the morning and paint Alice in Wonderland all day and then I’d go back to work in the kitchen and it would start all over again (Blackman, quoted in Amadio, p. 26.)
Blackman’s Alice in Wonderland series consists of approximately forty paintings. In these eccentric compositions – with their bold colours and highly imaginative use of iconic motifs from Lewis Carroll’s fantastic journey into the imagination – Blackman produces challenging images that are simultaneously amusing and psychologically disturbing: ‘What Alice releases in us is anything can happen! She allowed me to paint in a totally different style. That anything is allowable’. (Blackman, quoted in Amadio, p. 25.)
Feet beneath the table forms part of Barbara Blackman’s highly important recent gift of seven works by Charles Blackman to the National Gallery of Victoria. We are most grateful to Barbara Blackman for her outstanding generosity and long-standing support and commitment.
Geoffrey Smith, Curator of Australian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2005).