Published  03/09/2002

David Blackburn: The Sublime Landscape

David Blackburn: The Sublime Landscape

David Blackburn's exhibition at the Hart Gallery in London coincides with the publication of The Sublime Landscape, by Charlotte Mullins. In a long interview with the artist by Ron Phillips, Blackburn acknowledges his debts to other artists, writers and scholars who have influenced his artistic career

David Blackburn, Hart Gallery, Islington, London, 12 September–3 October 2002

David Blackburn: The Sublime Landscape by Charlotte Mullins with an interview with the artist by Ron Phillips, Hart Gallery, London and Nottingham, 2002

The exhibition and book together reveal the exceptional achievements of Blackburn as a landscape painter who has throughout his career used the landscape as a starting point for the search for the transcendental.

David Blackburn was born in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire in 1939. He studied at the local art school and four years later won a scholarship to study textile design at the Royal College of Art in London. He was greatly influenced by the Austrian artist and scholar, Gerhard Frankl who helped him to choose the somewhat unfashionable medium of pastel. As the current exhibition reveals, Blackburn works brilliantly in this ephemeral medium, making a radical departure from traditional pastel technique or subject matter.

From the Royal College, Blackburn went to Australia to teach. He stayed there for three years, mostly in Melbourne. When his father became ill he returned to England. He travelled to the centre of Australia and was greatly influenced by the intense Australian light and the dramatic colours of the land itself. He began to produce large-scale works, notably The Creation and the Metamorphoses series. On further trips to Australia in 1971 and 1973, he produced the Desert and Stones drawings and a further Creation series. He has continued to travel to Australia and America, and also to exhibit there.

At the Royal College, Blackburn was a contemporary of David Hockney and Ron Kitaj. Pop art and Abstract Expressionism were both the dominant trends of the time. It was Gerhard Frankl who he met in 1960, who probably exerted most influence on him. He encountered his work in the Reid Gallery in Cork Street. Mullins writes, 'Blackburn learnt more about colour through his weekly visits to Frankl than in his three years at the Royal College of Art. Frankl's interest in the psychology of colour was derived from Goethe's The Theory of Colour. Frankl was fascinated by complementary colours, and their power over each other and the viewer'.1

Blackburn recalls the effect of Gerhard Frankl on his work, 'I'd never seen pastel used to produce such intensity and depth of colour. It had an extraordinary looseness and freedom, which suggested huge spaces, shimmering light and a feeling of cold. I found it a revelation. He became almost a father figure to me. Gerhard was an Austrian-Jewish émigré who'd settled in London: his family had perished in the Holocaust. He was an art historian as well as an artist and he taught me how to look at pictures'.2

In the 1960s, Blackburn's work came to the attention of Sir Kenneth Clark, whose 'European humanism and his belief in the sanctity of nature' was in contrast to the prevailing interest in popular culture. Soon after their first meeting, Clark bought three of Blackburn's drawings from his degree show. His support and friendship were important factors in Blackburn's development as an artist, and his interest in Australia.

In the late 1960s Blackburn began his Creation series. They were, in due course, exhibited in a line along the gallery wall, 'so that the spectator passing in front of them viewed them in time as well as in space – almost like reading a story'.3 At the time Blackburn was working on black chalk drawings. When he placed them on the floor to examine them he 'began to see rises and falls in them, visually as well as in their ideas and themes, almost musical… Then I realised I might possibly combine them in a kind of visual equivalent of an epic poem, with drawings changing – progressing – through time… The idea of the Creation developed out of my acute consciousness of these themes of Life, Change, Development and Death, and as they evolved I began to see specific stages and turning points – for example, that human logic would eventually create life itself, which in turn would destroy man and his world, but then the whole thing would start again, with light descending out of darkness'.4

Drawing underpins Blackburn's large works. He works from nature: trees, roots, and cobwebs. In some works the use of light with pastel creates a cinematic quality. The Australian light has provided a complete contrast to his Yorkshire works, 'The darker, Methodist tradition as a powerful presence'. The artist has an intimate knowledge of the landscape in Yorkshire where he has walked in the Pennines for 60 years. He 'decided to use the landscape he grew up with as a source material for his work while still a student. For him, it was to embody his emotions, becoming his metaphor for self-expression'.5 The duality of life in Yorkshire, of extreme beauty and industrial decay, gives Blackburn's work a tension and a depth. He uses an aerial view from the spectacular Pennines, which emphasis the structural character of the land. Blackburn's pastel landscapes are among the finest and most independent of any artist working in Britain today.

Australia, where landscape was the dominant tradition, has exerted a great influence on Blackburn's oeuvre. In 1961, two years before his first visit there, he saw New Australian Painting at the Whitechapel Art gallery, for which Kenneth Clark wrote an introduction. 'In Australian landscape painting, as in all great landscape painting, the scenery is not painted for its own sake, but as a background of a legend and a reflection of human values.'6 Landscape artists Arthur Boyd and Fred Williams both produced work that changed the way Australians viewed the landscape, and they did so when the perceptual and figurative art were deemed less relevant than international movements. Blackburn was particularly influenced by Williams who reduced the outback to glorious compositions of dots and patterning. He was probably the first white Australian to see the landscape in a wholly original, non-European way. The light and the sense of space in Australia provided a complete contrast in visual terms to London or Yorkshire. He recalls the intense isolation experienced in the outback and the utter blackness at night. Uluru, he describes as the most memorable sight of his life.

The Outback had been a revelation, and suddenly the drawings became full of glowing reds and blazing oranges, with the sky taking up half the picture plane. As the feeling of this huge space, along with a strange dreamlike quality, entered my work the European concept of foreground, middle distance and background came to seem irrelevant. I started thinking of certain Surrealists - Yves Tanguy in particular.7

Years later, paintings such as Central Australian Landscape, 1996 show the extent to which Blackburn became completely immersed in the Australian psyche, the visual culture. It is a vivid and remarkable vision of outback Australia.

Blackburn has had a number of significant retrospective exhibitions and residencies. In 1974 after his return from Australia he was a Visiting Fellow at Merton College, Oxford. He then returned to Australia, to Canberra where he was based at the Australian National University, and then to the University of Melbourne, as the artist in residence. In 1978 came the Retrospective at Heslington Hall, University of York, which prompted Sir Kenneth Clark to publicly describe him as a great artist. In 1981, he was Visiting Professor at Georgetown University, Washington D.C. In 1989, he had a Retrospective Exhibition at the Yale centre for British Art, and Granada made a documentary of his work. Studio International in 1984 published a review of his Agnew's exhibition, and in 1989 Peter Fuller wrote, David Blackburn: Light and Landscape for his Yale Retrospective.

Australia and America have been vital for the development of Blackburn's landscape vision and travel has been vital in the development of his inner vision. Of his Australian experience Charlotte Mullins writes:

Blackburn's work is like a diary, and consequently different things experienced along the way the "diary" develops. Blackburn may depict metaphysical landscapes that stem from inner visions, but his experiences of tangible landscape stay with him. That is why many drawings completed in his Huddersfield studio over the last ten years – such as Blue Forest in Sunlight, New South Wales, 1995, and Red Tree and Cliff Sunset, 2001 – have echoes of Australia about them, even though he only briefly visited the continent three times during this period. When in Huddersfield, Australia becomes the "other", the dreamland, half way around the world and present only through memories.8

Mullins' description of the artist's method of working helps to explain the originality and visual skill that Blackburn has achieved:

Each new work grows organically from the last one completed; the colours that surround him as he creates a new drawing based on the last finished work. …Working in the back room of a large terraced house, with net curtains screening the window, he has no company save Radio 3, which he says allows him to be quite meditative about working, almost slipping into a trance-like state for hours at a time. During this time, each work becomes a visual manifestation of his inner sensibility, inspired by the landscape around him and further afield but in essence a working out of his own inner vision, his place in the world.9

It is right that David Blackburn locates his own work within the category of the sublime. Like the sublime's most famous English landscape designer, Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, Blackburn grew up close to the wild landscapes of Northern England, and both were profoundly influenced in childhood by such qualities in the environment. Blackburn's pastels capture that elusive, penetrating quality on land and in the sky that can never be relegated to the merely picturesque. Through abstraction, Blackburn purifies the concept of particular landscape experiences. As the historian and critic Colin Rowe agreed, too, it is in the territory somewhere between the sublime and the picturesque that beauty is more readily found. With Blackburn, it is beauty that mediates with the sublime here, in natural consequence.

1 Charlotte Mullins. David Blackburn: The Sublime Landscape, Hart Gallery, London and Nottingham, 2002, p.37
2 Blackburn interviewed with Ron Phillips, ibid, p.14
3 Phillips, ibid, p.18
4 Blackburn, ibid, p.18
5 Mullins, ibid, p.45
6 Kenneth Clark, Introduction to New Australian painting, at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1961.
7 Blackburn, ibid, p.21
8 Mullins, ibid, pp.80-5
9 Ibid, p.37

Janet McKenzie

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