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Brett Whiteley (1939–1992)

by Barry Pearce

This article was published:

Brett Whiteley, by Greg Weight, 1976

Brett Whiteley, by Greg Weight, 1976

National Library of Australia, 12090936

Brett Whiteley (1939–1992), artist, was born on 7 April 1939 at Paddington, Sydney, younger of two children of English-born Clement Whiteley, publicity manager, and his New South Wales-born wife Beryl Mary, née Martin. Brett grew up at Longueville, a quiet suburb on the northern shores of Sydney Harbour. Clem, who was manager of the Orpheum Theatres at North Sydney and Cremorne and later advertising manager for Hoyts Theatres Ltd, was for a time also involved in reproducing images, including (Sir) William Dobell’s Storm Approaching Wangi, which had been awarded the Wynne prize in 1948. Dobell often visited the Whiteley house.

Educated as a boarder at the Scots School, Bathurst, and at Scots College, Bellevue Hill, Sydney, Whiteley discovered the work of another local artist, Lloyd Rees, who lived near Longueville. He wrote to his mother asking her to find him a second-hand easel, as well as books on the works of Augustus John and Jacob Epstein. He developed an insatiable appetite for discovering how certain artists, including Dobell, Rees, and van Gogh, had viewed their motifs and expressed them in paint, and for finding what made their talent shine above that of others.

From 1956 Whiteley was employed in the layout and commercial art department at Lintas Pty Ltd, an advertising agency. With his friend Michael Johnson, he explored the art classes and sketch clubs of Sydney: up and down George Street between the Rocks—where he was enrolled at the Julian Ashton School—and Central Station; over to the National Art School; and across the harbour to the Northwood group. They searched out the motifs of Rees at McMahons Point and the inner city street scenes of Sali Herman. They conjured the palette and landscape forms of (Sir) Russell Drysdale in the old gold-mining towns of Sofala and Hill End. Beckoned by the international art scene, they studied reproductions of modern and old masters. During this time, Whiteley met his future wife and muse, the beautiful art student Wendy Susan Julius, a niece of the impressionist artist Kathleen O’Connor.

Awarded an Italian government travelling art scholarship, judged by Drysdale, Whiteley departed for Europe in early 1960. By this time he had long been gathering ideas about being a painter, and was ready to explore further not only techniques but also the secrets of his artist heroes’ charisma. His harvesting of inspiration from museums, galleries, and churches gathered pace after his arrival in Italy in February.

At the end of 1960 Whiteley moved to London with Wendy, who had joined him in Italy, and they rented a flat at Ladbroke Grove. He produced a series of abstractions, one of the finest of which, Untitled Red Painting (1960), was bought by the Tate gallery. This work glows with the colours of Australian earth, while also reflecting an admiration for the British painter William Scott, whose flat abstractions—derived from table-top still-life motifs—reinforced Whiteley’s interest in shapes, edges, and daring proportions. Adding erotic elements inspired by Arshile Gorky’s work, Whiteley put into the piece most of the basic elements of his pictorial methodology to come. He married Wendy on 27 March 1962 at the Chelsea register office. After several months honeymooning in France, they moved to a flat near Notting Hill Gate; later, they lived at Holland Park, in a studio once occupied by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Holman Hunt.

After his marriage, bedevilled by a fear of stagnation, Whiteley moved from his early abstractions into a bathroom series, reflecting an admiration for the French painter Pierre Bonnard. The series celebrated the sensuousness of his wife’s body, extolling the curve as a medium of sexual desire. This desire had a dark side. Stirred by the death of his father, and moved to emulate his friend Francis Bacon, Whiteley developed another series based on the necrophile serial murderer John Christie, whose crimes had been committed near Ladbroke Grove. The dissonance with the mood of his most recent work became a conscious ploy, as he toyed with opposites in a way that disturbed art commentators. During this time he also completed a series based on the London Zoo.

Whiteley briefly visited Australia in 1965 and 1966. He had won prizes, been included in national and international surveys, and was regarded as one of the best young painters working in England and Australia. Inevitably, he wanted to try his hand in the United States of America. Aided by a Harkness fellowship, he set sail for New York in October 1967. He and Wendy, with their young daughter, Arkie, moved into the notorious Chelsea Hotel, where they rubbed shoulders with an unconventional collective of painters, poets, musicians, prostitutes, and theatre people. Whiteley was already associated with the Marlborough galleries, within the creative pulse of New York, and it seemed his conquest of the international art world would be complete. However, it was not to be.

The energy of New York intoxicated Whiteley, but he also felt its destructiveness, and his infatuation soon turned sour. His first response to the city had been to see it as a gargantuan piece of living sculpture, punctuated by flashes of yellow, the colour of optimism and madness. But he soon began to fear the United States, at a time of heightened social conflict, for its violence and potential to bruise the soul. Most of all, he hated the country’s indifference to cultures outside its own boundaries. It seemed, to his amazement, provincial.

As Whiteley’s focus showed signs of fragmenting, he laboured to fit into a cultural matrix with which he felt uncomfortable. Reviewers of his exhibitions were good-natured about his political messages, which were created with calculated irony, and admired his drawings of copulating couples in an era celebrating ‘free love.’ But unfortunately his fragile combinations of fibre-glass, oil paint, photography, electric lights, steel, barbed wire, and in one instance rice and a hand-grenade, consigned many of the works of this period to oblivion. His American interlude came to an end with the creation of the vast multi-panelled The American Dream (1969). This work, which his dealer refused to exhibit, contained much anger and frustration, coming partly from a futile desire to change society—which he saw as sliding into insanity—and reflecting disintegration in his domestic life. Alcohol and drugs may have promised enhanced perception, but their influence was beginning to shadow his existence.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Whiteley’s period in America was his development of heroic alter-ego paintings. He continued these after his return to Australia at the end of 1969, following a brief but calamitous stay in Fiji, from where he and his family were ejected after being found in possession of an illicit drug. Inspired by cultural figures from Europe and America—including Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Gauguin, Brendan Behan, and Bob Dylan—he produced ambitious compositions around their mythologies. These works may be most valuable for the questions they raise about his view of himself. Why did he need to declare such an interest in other luminaries of the arts? Was there some sense of dissatisfaction hidden behind a veneer of self-belief? Whiteley can be seen to have explored his own ego through the charisma of famous personalities in whom he recognised a shared addictive nature. At the same time, while also descending into heroin addiction, he produced classic paintings and drawings of landscape and figures. His elegant seascapes and landscapes were inspired by views of Sydney Harbour from a house at Lavender Bay, which he and Wendy rented in 1970 and then eventually purchased, and by the plains, rivers, rises, and rocks of western New South Wales. In 1976 he won the Archibald and Sir John Sulman prizes, in 1977 the Wynne prize, and in 1978 all three. He won the Wynne again in 1984.

In his works, Whiteley reached for the greatest ecstasy imaginable, and then yearned to go further. Yet he also sought to include pain and discordancy in his aesthetic agenda. He never wanted his vision to be regarded as merely soft-centred lyricism. In attempting to jolt the minds of his viewers out of complacency, however, he laid himself open to accusations of gimmickry. He built a sculpture from a shark’s jaw, made an owl from a beach thong, and painted a self-portrait showing himself as a simian beast savaged by heroin. It is difficult to reconcile such shocking, sometimes ill-conceived, projects with paintings like The River at Marulan (1976) and Summer at Carcoar (1977), or the best of the bird paintings, which suggest an artist identifying joyously with nature and its seasons. Yet it was Whiteley’s conviction that every mood conjured its opposite, and that this equation was an inevitable contract between art and life.

A major turning point for the Whiteleys came in 1985. That year Whiteley purchased a defunct t-shirt factory that he converted into a residence and studio. He and Wendy had both committed to cleansing themselves of drug addiction, and travelled to a clinic in London. Only Wendy followed it through successfully, leading to separation and eventually, in 1989, divorce. Whiteley later formed other relationships, including with Janice Spencer. In 1991 he was appointed AO. He died from the effect of drugs and alcohol on 11 or 12 June 1992 in a motel room at Thirroul on the south coast of New South Wales. Underneath the hype that had surrounded him was a hard-working painter of tenacious research and keen sensibility. While in later years his work had sometimes become flashy, it had continued to reflect a strong loyalty to the great traditions of painting and drawing which had arrested his attention at a young age. After his death, the factory studio was acquired by the New South Wales government and from 1995 maintained as a memorial museum. At the same time several important works by the artist were acquired from his estate for permanent housing in the museum, including what may be his greatest masterpiece, the vast, multi-panelled, autobiographical Alchemy (197273). A travelling art scholarship bearing his name was established by his mother, Beryl, in 1999.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Brett Whiteley Artist File. Archives, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
  • Hawley, Janet. Encounters With Australian Artists. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1993
  • Hopkirk, Frannie. Brett: A Portrait of Brett Whiteley by His Sister. Sydney: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996
  • McGrath, Sandra. Brett Whiteley. Rushcutters Bay, NSW: Bay Books, 1979
  • Pearce, Barry, with contributions by Bryan Robertson and Wendy Whiteley and exhibition research by Charlotte Hayman. Brett Whiteley: Art and Life. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1995
  • Pearce, Barry, and Wendy Whiteley. Brett Whiteley Studio. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2007

Additional Resources

Citation details

Barry Pearce, 'Whiteley, Brett (1939–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2016, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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