In Dialogue with the Muse of Art History: Brett Whiteley


Brett Whitely, Remembering Lao Tse (Shaving off a Second) 1967

The most fundamental reason one paints is in order to see. –Brett Whiteley

Brett Whiteley was born in April 1939, a few months before the outbreak of WWII. Like Ginger Meggs, Brett had a mop of red hair and was a bit of a tearaway, but unlike the comic book hero was no Aussie battler, coming from a comfortable middle class background on Sydney’s north shore. He had a precocious talent for drawing, winning an art prize at the age of seven, the first of many that came early in his career. His parents were keen on the theatre and the arts and encouraged their son to pursue his interest in drawing and painting.

Brett and his older sister Francis had plenty of opportunity to observe their parents enjoying the good life, partying with their friends at their big house in Longueville. The budding painter was introduced early to the joys of smoking, alcohol and sex among his adult acquaintances, possibly a factor relevant to his addictive personality in later life.

In 1948, Brett was sent to boarding school at the prestigious Scots College. While there, he asked his mother to buy him a second hand easel and some books about Augustus John and Jacob Epstein. Brett’s father was involved in the reproduction of paintings, and this provided young Brett with an opportunity to meet famous painters like William Dobell, who taught him dry-brush technique. He also discovered the work of Lloyd Rees, another famous Australian painter who lived nearby. His apotheosis occurred at the age of sixteen, when he discovered a book about Van Gogh, an experience he recorded later in the following words:

I picked up the book and studied it – it completely changed my way of seeing. The immediate effect was a heightening of reality in that everything I looked at took on an intensity . . . I remember having this very, very powerful sense that my destiny was to completely give myself to painting.

It is clear from this account that the young Brett Whitely had a deeply serious side to his nature and was both highly intelligent and mature for his age.

Brett left school in 1956 and went to work at Lintas Advertising Agency in the commercial art department. He attended life classes at the National Art School, where he met his childhood sweetheart, Wendy Julius. In the same year he won an award in the Young Painters section of the Bathurst Art show.

More important, however, must have been his mother’s decision to leave the family to live in England. In the period up to 1959, he converted the glasshouse at home into an art studio and painted landscapes in the local area. Like his hero, Van Gogh, he associated with the poor and homeless working on sketches for paintings at the Sydney Soup Kitchen and Night Refuge.

In 1959 Whiteley left Lintas to concentrate on painting for the Italian Government Travelling Art Scholarship, which he won, travelling to Naples in February 1960, and visiting London and Paris in the same year. After 1961 he exhibited widely and won many prizes, including the International Prix at the Paris Biennale. By the mid 1960s he had become firmly established as a leading young Australian painter whose accomplishments had become too many to record outside a tedious list.

Brett Whiteley, Woman in the Bath (1964)

A typical painting from this period is Woman in the Bath, shown above. Brett had married Wendy in 1962 and fully exploited her as his model and muse. The design of the painting is dominant; with the bold, unrelieved black area highlighting the figure crouched in the bath, beneath a running shower. The painting expresses the concerns of contemporary painters: how to retain the power of abstraction while introducing a degree of figuration. For comparison the works of Francis Bacon, R B Kitaj and David Hockney are important as moving away from the non-figurative forms US abstract impressionism.

At this time, Whiteley became obsessed with the Rillington place murders of the necrophile John Christie and exploited their horror in the manner of Bacon’s figures, isolated by a menacing, synthetic space. This element of psychological fragility was to permeate much of his later work that has been classified as surrealist. Brett’s father died in 1963 and Brett’s daughter, Arky was born in 1964, completing the transformation of his family life, although he subsequently had close contact with his sister Frannie in later years.

In 1967 Whiteley exhibited in Pittsburgh and won the Harkness Foundation Scholarship. After travelling in Spain he moved into a penthouse in New York’s Chelsea Hotel, a symbol of his meteoric artistic and material success. The drawing, Shaving off a Second (1967), well illustrates his powers as a draughtsman and thinker, grappling with the radical ideas of his times. In 1965, the aspiring critic Robert Hughes had noted Whiteley’s continual dialogue with “the muse of art history . . . and the nature of art and perception”. The drawing, with its quotation from the Tao Te Ching, challenges the viewer, the narcissist in the mirror, to rise to the challenge of becoming a great artist at all levels. The finger is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s God sparking life into Adam or Leonardo’s pointing John the Baptist, but here, Whiteley electrifies his own inner Frankenstein monster. The slashing lines radiating from the wandering left eye suggest the subtext of Van Gogh’s shaving off a piece of his ear, rather than a slice of time.

Brett Whiteley, American Dream (1968-69)

In 1969, while in New York, Whiteley completed a large painting entitled American Dream. This predominantly red painting, which the painter described as, “a record of my struggle and resolve; it is an admission of failure,” makes clear his involvement with the Pop and drug culture. He wanted the painting to make a difference but recognised that, “art can’t change things, can’t turn humans or politics or history around.”(1)

The painting is more an inner landscape, rather than a depiction of American society, although the fifteenth panel shows a mushroom cloud, a matter of deep fear in the 1960s. The fish and birds are reminiscent of the fantasies of Hieronymous Bosch and the “worldly delights” available to the successful painter in Gotham City. The painting is notable for its experimentation with photography, steel, Perspex, fibreglass, weaponry, pieces of musical instruments, fur, cloth, and barbed wire.

Brett Whiteley, Alchemy (1972-73)

In 1972, Whiteley began work on another 18 panel mural, entitled Alchemy, which can be seen as an attempt to consolidate his oeuvre in a masterpiece. In constructing these lage scale works, Brett drew upon a wide range of drawing experience, both from life and from an intense study of painters from Rembrandt to Modigliani. There was much violence in Brett’s personality, which had been amplified by his American experience. These two large paintings have been described as disasters, because they are overloaded with cultural baggage from the 1960s. However, Brett regarded Alchemy as one of his best works, even though it had drained him physically and psychologically. “It was the transformative power of art that fascinated Whiteley in much of these transcendental works,” according to curator of Alchemy at the time.

Brett Whiteley, Self-Portrait in the Studio (1976)

In 1976, Brett won the Archibald Prize for his painting Self Portrait in the Studio. Apart from the mirror portrait, this was clearly inspired by Matisse’s Red Studio, with the colour transformed to Whiteley’s favourite ultramarine blue. The sculpture depicted on the right and others in the background remind us that Brett was at home with this art form too. In 1978 he became the only Australian artist to win the Archibald (twice), Sulman and Wynne art prizes.

Whiteley had scored his first success as a landscape painter and never forgot his early inspiration in the work of Van Gogh. The peculiar painting below is one of many attempts to capture the spirit of the Dutch painter, whose works also trod the fine line between drawing on nature and on a highly charged emotional and spiritual nature that contributed to his failure and early death. In terms of success, the two painters could not have been more different, and Whitely must surely have wondered whether his perfect career might have had a deleterious effect on his work.

Brett Whiteley, The Blossom Tree (1971-1982)

Brett was a master of line, a skill he augmented with a study of oriental art and calligraphy. In the nude portrait of Wendy 1984 (below), the influence of both Modigliani and Matisse is evident. The inclusion of a drawing of the garden and small objects on the table adds to the intimacy and intense sexual charge of the painting, although both Brett and Wendy were heavy heroin users at the time. The elegant design and sonorous tones make this one of the great nude paintings of the 20th Century. Brett and Wendy divorced in 1989 after years of self-destruction and drug abuse.

Brett Whiteley, Wendy (1984)

At the end of his career, Brett concentrated on drawing, travelling to Bali and Japan with his new girlfriend Janice Spencer. In 1991 he was awarded the Order of Australia, something of an anti-climax after his stellar career as one of Australia’s leading artists. Back in Australia, the decline in his health was dramatic, after near death experiences coming off heroin with the support of his sister Franny. He decided that he could never give up heroin permanently and recognised that his death was unavoidable as a consequence of this decision.

Brett Whiteley exploited his prodigious talents by living life to the full, depending on a heady mix of alcohol, heroin and sex for inspiration. His life went beyond mere painting, trying to achieve greatness through integrating life with art. The result was a fine consolidation of the best aspects of modern painting, from abstraction to meticulous practice and research into a multitude of techniques. Although his life was shortened, he was able to achieve a lasting body of work that elevates him beyond his outstanding fame as an Australian painter, into the pantheon of great artists of the 20th Century. He died of a heroin overdose in June 1992 in New South Wales at the age of 55.

Notes: (1) Brett, Franny Hopkirk, p.169.
Image Credits:
Art Quotes, Flickr

TTcutTony Thomas was born in England in 1939, and is a retired bureaucrat living in Brisbane, Australia. He has an Australian wife, two adult daughters, a dog and a cat. He holds a degree in economics from the University of Queensland. His interests are catholic, and include: writing fiction, poetry, and blogging political diatribes. Other abiding interests include political and social philosophy, with occasional forays into logic and the foundations of mathematics.