THE PROPERTY OF AL ALVAREZ (Lots 40-45)
The story is that the Australian painters became something of a craze over here because the English are hopelessly addicted to literature; painterly values as such bore them. So when a group of artists arrived on the scene whose work was not merely figurative but whose figures seemed to add up to a new mythology the English fell flat. It seemed possible for them once again to discuss paintings without ever quite discussing paint ...
A. Alvarez, 'The Paintings of Charles Blackman, The substance of dreams', Studio International (incorporating The Studio), Vol.170, no.869, September 1965, p.98).
THE AUSTRALIAN ARTISTS IN LONDON IN THE 1960s
Arthur Boyd was painting red dogs at the time ...
Al Alvarez, poet, writer, interviewed by Luke Alvarez in July 2013, combined with extracts from his autobiography Where Did It All Go Right? (latter marked in italics)
LA: So describe the scene back then:
AA: It's a long time in the past now, and I've forgotten much of it, as my memory's a bit shot. I first met Sidney Nolan in 1958 in New Mexico when I was staying at the Lawrence ranch on a Rockefeller grant. He came to look me up there because he had just finished reading a book of mine called The Shaping Spirit. My tone in the book apparently suggested an aged solemn Spanish sage, but when I nearly ran him down in my ancient Studebaker, wearing jeans and sneakers, he relaxed, took off his jacket and tie, and we became great friends.
Later, in 1961, Bryan Robertson mounted a great show of new Australian painting at the Whitechapel Gallery. Its success brought a number of other artists to London: Charles Blackman, Arthur Boyd, Lawrence Daws, John Perceval, and, in 1965, Colin Lanceley.
It was the Sixties and we were all in our late 20's or early 30's and I got to know them all. The painters were mostly scattered around Highgate [in north London]. We used to meet in a pretty ghastly pub, up over the back of Highgate Hill off the North Circular. I had an E-type that I'd won in a poker game and I'd drive up there and we would all hang out. I was dating a string of inappropriate women.
LA: and driving a sports car -- sounds like a lot of fun.
AA: Yes it was. [cackles].
I was rock-climbing in North Wales on the alternate weekends, but on these Sundays we would all meet. The pub had a good bar. Arthur Boyd was painting red dogs at the time, and he always arrived with a blush of ruddy pigment on his cheeks, which made him look, for him, unnaturally healthy. The pub was big and ugly and noisy, which was probably why the Australians liked it: it reminded them of the pubs down under and showed how little they were taken in by pretty Olde England. It also had a piano for singsongs and a small stage. Towards closing time Barry Humphries used to get up on the stage and try out what later became his Edna Everage routines. This was at the beginning of the sixties, when men didn't yet wear long hair -- Barry's was down to his shoulders -- and the only female impersonator in town was the famously camp Danny La Rue. We used to cheer Barry on raucously, but the regulars, mostly elderly, were not always amused. (Alvarez, 1999, p.186)
Charlie was my big buddy, though like me he's now forgotten most of it.
There were several Saturdays in 1962 when Charlie, his wife Barbara, Ted Hughes (the poet), Assia Wevill, my future wife Anne and I danced The Twist to the Beatles at my studio. It would have been some months after Sylvia Plath died.
I've always loved painter's studios. Sid had a really beautiful studio down on the Thames, really lovely, Charlie's studio was up in Highgate, and Arthur's studio was here in Flask Walk in Hampstead, 3 doors down from our eventual home (-- though I lived in a studio above a stables in Chalk Farm at the time). Colin Lanceley was around as well, though unlike the others somewhere near Baker Street. Sid was the first to arrive in London in the late 1950s and he and the Lanceleys were both here for a very long time, well into the 1970s.
The ultimate handyman's studio, and the one I liked best, belonged to Colin [Lanceley]. Colin was an original, part Surrealist, part craftsman, a meticulous draughtsman of strange creatures that looked like anatomical drawings of cerebral processes -- thoughts with digestive systems, wit and attitude. His paintings were also halfway to being sculptures; the surfaces of his canvases rippled and the images seemed to solidify and step down the wall into the room. It was an eerie effect and he achieved it by a kind of three-dimensional collage. For the artist the special charm of this form lies in the way found objects bring an element of chance into the formal frame of a painting. But Lanceley is intellectual in his taste and even his found objects had intellectual weight. (Alvarez, 1999, p.287)
Colin's wife Kay was beautiful and an inspired cook. When they left London for good, in 1980, it was as though a part of our lives had been snuffed out.
LA: Tell us more about Charlie's paintings.
AA: The poems I had been writing in the backwash of my first marriage were about unhappiness. It seemed to be the only subject I had. But it was a subject I shared with Charlie, and during the first half of the sixties, we spent a lot of time in each other's company. I had seen three of his paintings at the Whitechapel show, and one of them in particular Cliff Faces has stuck in my mind: a series of brooding, melancholy faces -- girls' faces, most of them -- each separate and arranged on a great black canvas, like photographs in an album.
When I met him at his one-man show at the Matthiesen Gallery, we started arguing almost immediately, but purely for the pleasure of it, because argument was something we both enjoyed. It wasn't the only thing we had in common. I also recognised in his paintings something I was after in poetry -- an emotional starkness, images that worked on you with the immediacy of dreams. Blackman, at that time, was painting the same two female images over and over again -- one was of a grieving woman, accusing and apparently sightless; the other was of a young girl, playing or lost or dancing or brooding over flowers. The eyes of both the women and the children were turned inwards, their hands were eloquent and the flowers they played with were delicate and formal, but the focus was always on their faces: grim or rapt or shocked or dreaming, faces behind faces, and faces behind those, a cloud of witnesses to the act of painting. The formal means varied continually: at times the figures were striped like convicts, so that their shapes solidified through bars of colour or were violently brought up short against them; or they emerged out of fog; or they were painted flat and hard, like pop images; or the whole painting was subdivided into separate frames, like a comic strip. But it was always the same images and variations on the same few situations. The paintings were as loaded and obsessed as recurrent dreams. He seemed to be trying to create images for grief and guilt, for loss and persecution and tenderness in their most naked forms -- soaked in feeling, dredged up alive and kicking from the unconscious. (1999, pp.289-90).
Charlie and I did two books together, one of my poems and his gouaches -- (Apparition, 1971) -- and one about our visit to the Daintree rainforest (Rainforest, 1986).
Charlie's wife Barbara had encouraged him to paint, and then just as he was hitting his stride she had lost her sight. ... On one level the unease her blindness aroused in him may explain something of the guilt and masochism that underlie the paintings. But I think Blackman used it in a subtler way -- less as a subject than as the beginning of a style. He created visual images that somehow conveyed an uncannily heightened awareness of the other senses -- touch, silence, isolation -- visual images of a non-visual world. Some psychoanalysts talk of art as an act of reparation; but Blackman was doing something more complicated; he wasn't only making up for his wife's blindness, he was in some way inhabiting it; he was painting how it must feel to be blind.
LA: So how did you build your collection?
AA: I finished up with a lot of pictures by these guys. They were all my buddies so I used to buy from them direct -- and often they were gifts. Several of the paintings were painted "for Al".
I remember the day, probably the day before Christmas 1960, getting a phone call from Charlie, saying "I just want to make sure you're around -- I'm sending you the biggest fucking Christmas card you've ever seen." Twenty minutes later these two big guys who looked like they knew how to handle themselves marched in with this huge picture, the one that used to hang in the dining room. I called Charlie and when I tried to thank him, he said "It's Christmas, isn't it?"-- he was a hugely generous guy. And it was our biggest picture -- and it's marvelous. (Girl Playing, 56 x 55in.)[lot 41]
I bought Lanceley's The Transit of Venus [lot 45] at a New York Gallery. Blackman's Anne's Room [Australian Art -- Works on Paper online sale] was done at our house in Italy when Charlie came to visit to persuade me to come to the Daintree rainforest with him.
Sid gave Anne and me a copy of the Sidney Nolan book in 1966 as a wedding gift. In it he sketched a Ned Kelly picture on the opening pages. He gave me many other wonderful pictures as well.
Cliff Faces [lot 44], Sleeping Head [lot 42] and Dreaming Girl [lot 43] and the others I bought from Charlie at his studio -- and the same with the pictures by Colin [Lanceley], Arthur [Boyd] and Sid [Nolan]. I'd visit these guys at their studios, see something I like, and they'd mostly give them to me. I tried to pay but they were my friends and they mostly refused. One time I was with Charlie, and I insisted on paying and he charged me ten quid for it -- I can remember that [laughs]. (Head of a Girl, 19½ x 14½in.)
We all had a terrific time -- it was a very nice period to be around.
Nolan, Lanceley and Blackman loved literature and ideas in the same amateur way as I love paintings -- passionately but without finally knowing too much about them. And not knowing enough allowed us a certain freedom; it meant we were comfortable with each other and didn't compete; we admired each other's mysterious expertise and couldn't intrude on the privacy ... Maybe the Australians also liked me because I didn't fit their idea of the emotionally costive Englishman. In their different ways all three artists thought of themselves as Ned Kellys, subversive by profession as well as by nature and permanently in opposition, no matter what honours were showered on them later in their lives. I like to think that they thought of me as an outsider like themselves, at odds with the ruling pieties, a Jew with a Spanish name disguised as a true Brit. (1999, p.294)
Alvarez, A. (1958), The Shaping Spirit: Studies in Modern English and American Poets, Chatto and Windus: London.
Alvarez, A. (1999), Where Did it All Go Right?, Bloomsbury: London.
Alvarez, A. and Blackman, C. (1971), Apparition: Poems by A. Alvarez. Paintings by Charles Blackman, University of Queensland Press: St Lucia, Queensland.