This must be the season for hyperbolic boostering on behalf of dead and
ageing artists. First we had all the over-blown hagiographic tributes to the recently
departed Pro Hart and now there’s the campaign to turn Charles Blackman into a
living art legend.

The push to immortalise Blackman while he’s still breathing reached its
zenith yesterday with Peter Wilmoth describing him as “Australia’s greatest
living artist” in a front-page piece in the Sunday Age that spilled to an enormous two-page profile inside.

A week ago the National Gallery of Victoria issued a plea to the public to
help find four missing paintings from Blackman’s Alice in Wonderland
series which the artist painted in the 1950s.

The appeal was accompanied by some over-the-top assertions about
Blackman’s place in the pantheon of Australian art and an absurd claim about the
importance of his Alice series, with the NGV’s curator of 20th century
Australian art, Geoffrey Smith, comparing it to Sid Nolan’s Kelly series, Arthur Boyd’s Bride
series and Bert Tucker’s Images of Modern Evil series.

For my money, putting Blackman in the same league as Nolan, Boyd and Tucker
is like comparing Jacob’s Creek to Grange Hermitage. His Alice pictures
and his other paintings of little girls are certainly a bit weird but they’re
also not that good. In searching for a way to describe them, mawkish, gaudy and
naff are words that most readily spring to mind.

To call him our “greatest living painter” does a great disservice to many
artists, young and old, all infinitely more interesting and talented than
Blackman and still producing good work. What about John Olsen, Peter Booth, Robert Hunter, Louise Hearman, William
Robinson, James Gleeson, Susan Norrie, Len French, Jeffrey Smart, Keith Looby,
Jan Senbergs, Gareth Sansom, John Firth Smith…?

This is an off-the-top-of-the-head list from which I’ve deliberately
excluded close mates, many of whom are streets ahead of Blackman. I’ve also not
included any indigenous artists as my current knowledge in that area is
shamefully thin. Just as well Wilmoth restricted his declaration of greatness to
painting. Had he made it “greatest artist” the list of names ahead of Blackman
would have been even longer.

Given the subjective nature of artistic appreciation, anyone who boldly
declares one particular painter to be the “greatest” is on a hiding to nothing,
but Wilmoth deserves a thorough thrashing for putting Blackman on that pedestal.
He seems to believe Blackman is worthy of the title because he’s the “final link
to the rebellious era of Perceval, Tucker and Nolan”. That’s simply not true.
There are many people, Mirka Mora among them, who had first-hand experience of
that era and are still alive and well.

Methinks this is an opportunity for another Crikey list: Let us know who
you believe deserves the title of “greatest living painter”, or “greatest living
artist” if you don’t want to be restricted by medium. Send your nominations to [email protected]

Peter Fray

A lot can happen in 3 months.

3 months is a long time in 2020. Join us to make sense of it all.

Get you first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12. Cancel anytime.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

12 weeks for $12