Barbara Blackman: Seeing from within
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Barbara Blackman: Seeing from within

When I asked Barbara Blackman if "this autobiographical film was based on her autobiographical reflections, Glass after glass, which made such a splash when it was first published in 1997", the answer was a resounding "no".

"One life has many autobiographies," she says, "it depends on where you place a shaft of memory."

Portrait of Barbara Blackman at home in Canberra.

Portrait of Barbara Blackman at home in Canberra.Credit:Rohan Thomson

Blackman, now 88, has lived in Canberra since March 2002 and has led a full, yet unconventional life, one where childhood optic atrophy resulted in her becoming legally blind by the age of 21.

"Blindness is not a negative," she says, "It is a different way of seeing, hence the title of the film Seeing from within.

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"Blindness is not living in a world of total darkness – my world is blue, pink and grey. It is better to see blindness as an eccentricity – seeing is a centricity and blindness is an eccentricity."

The film came about on the initiative of the producer John Swindells: Blackman produced a series of scripts for the film from which Swindells made a selection and the whole film was shot with Blackman seated in her favourite chair in the living room of her house in Canberra relating her life's story. This first-person narrative is punctuated with archival footage and, less successfully, illustrated with little animated characters who play out the narrative.

The film opens with a blank screen with Blackman saying, "I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but with something much better – a question mark … And I have asked 'why'? What is life? How does one live it, then 'why?' As an old woman to be still an explorer with the terrible thought – that one may have the experience, but miss the meaning."

Barbara Blackman and her dog Piece of String at home in Canberra.

Barbara Blackman and her dog Piece of String at home in Canberra.Credit:Rohan Thomson

The film then continues as an autobiographical sketch where we trace her life from her birth in Brisbane as one of twin girls born on December 22, 1928. Her sister only lived for 16 days and her father died when she was three, leaving Blackman and her mother living in various homes and boarding houses in Brisbane, while her mother worked as an accountant.

As a child going through the state school system in Brisbane, she embraced literature and music and formed close friendships with writers, particularly Judith Wright. On moving to study in Sydney, she met Charles Blackman on August 12, 1949, at the artist's 21st birthday party, and shortly after that they became lovers. Their marriage lasted almost 30 years, they divorced in 1978 and, as Blackman eloquently describes it with a memorable turn of phrase, "it was one of the great marriages, which lasted as long as possible, and a bit longer".

Charles claimed to have had enough eyes for both of them, while Blackman had the intellect and the organisational ability to give order to his life. He read to her the corpus of great literature, especially the Russian classics, while she supported the family by working as a model for artists and receiving a modest disability pension.

Charles gained recognition in the early 1950s, first with his schoolgirl paintings and then with his Alice series and participated in the controversial Antipodean exhibition in 1959. The following year he was awarded the Helena Rubinstein Travelling Scholarship and the family shifted to London where they not only formed a hub within the Australian expatriate community, but also attracted many European intellectuals, including the wonderful poet Ted Hughes.

What emerges clearly in the film is that Blackman was not simply the wife of a famous artist, but she steered her own ship and is a formidable intellectual. As a writer, poet and essayist, she forged her own identity and had her own strong relationships, such as with the Australian author Ray Mathew.

As Charles' fame grew and his life dissolved into an alcoholic stupor, Blackman guided the development of their children, Auguste, Christabel and Barnaby, and enhanced her own professional standing. By 1979, after she had turned 50, she found herself alone, without a lover, money or a job, and travelled for five months to Central and Western Australia as part of a self-discovery and healing process.

By 1981 she had met the French-born philosopher Marcel Veldhoven, whom she later married, and with whom she settled in a rural retreat that they built on the NSW south coast. After a long relationship, they separated with Marcel going off to pursue Tibetan Buddhism, while Blackman shifted to Canberra.

When I asked her why she chose Canberra, she hesitated, pointing out that for many years she had fruitfully worked for the National Library on their oral histories project and "my two oldest friends lived in Canberra, Judith Wright and Nugget Coombs".

Longevity has meant that she has outlived many of her contemporaries, but she has never tired of extending her horizons and has been a generous benefactor of Australian contemporary music and of Australian museums with gifts of art from her collection.

Seeing from within is an inspirational film about a brilliant and challenging intellectual who on many fronts has contributed to our thinking about art and music in this country. Her libretto to Peter Sculthorpe's Eliza Surviva, her book of correspondence with Judith Wright or her recent, beautifully amusing book Dog's Doggerel are but three examples of her brilliant and penetrating intellect.

Blackman is a genuinely interesting person who takes delight in challenging conventional wisdom. In the ninth and concluding section of the film she says, "I have not lived a conventional life, I could not have lived a conventional life as I could not have picked up the rules."

It may not be a conventional life, but it is a rich life, one which she presently shares with her Jack Russell called "Piece of string" (she also answers to Princess). Over the years that I have known her, I have always treasured her insights, aphorisms and her gift of wisdom. When I saw her last, she said as I was leaving, "I go with the angels and they know more than we do – I told them what I wanted and they showed me the way."

Seeing from within: A film about Barbara Blackman. Producer/Director John Swindells, 96-minute bio-pic documentary. Public launch: July 17, 2017, Dendy Canberra, Canberra Centre, followed by screenings in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

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