Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Brett Whiteley - in memory of

Brett Whiteley self-portrait, Remembering Lao Tse (Shaving off a Second), 1967
[image link from]

A few blogs back, a reference to Australian artist Brett Whitely came up, and since my Visitors Counter (no, my goons don't know where you live, just what flag you fly) now tells me I've had visitors from 125 countries, i thought i would introduce Brett to those in the wider world who might be unfamiliar with his work.

in Australia  Bret Whitely is a legend, a national treasure, an icon, an artist as well known as a football star.

There are plenty of biographies of Brett on the web, so i won't attempt one, other than give a few incredibly brief impressions of the man and his art.

Impression 1:
The ultimate self-portrait - a  painting of made oils, gold leafcollage, rock, perspex, electricity, pencil, PVA, varnish, brain, earth, twig, taxidermied bird, nest, egg, feathers, cicada, bone, dentures, rubber and metal sink plug, pins, shell and glass eye on eighteen wood panels, 2 x 16 meters!; not signed, not dated. It is a spiritual autobiography housed in the wonderful Art Gallery of NSW.

Brett Whiteley Alchemy, mixed media on 18 wood panels, 203 × 1615 cm, 1973
photo by Kitty Cate,

You can see very detailed close-ups of the work here and here.

Impression 2:
An Archibald Prize-winning (the Aussie Oscar for portrait painting) self portrait depicting the interior of his Sydney apartment (his face is in the hand-held mirror).

Brett Whiteley, Self portrait in the studio, 1975.
[image link from]

The Gallery of NSW, for the exhibition Whiteley himself and his friends 2004, described him as:
"Twice winner of the Archibald Prize, Whiteley is one of Australia's best-known and popular artists. He was a charismatic and energetic individual who gained early success and international acclaim during the heady 1960s and 70s. From a very early age he was fascinated by the romantic vision of the artist as hero - or anti-hero - and enthusiastically pursued his passions in both his art and life-style. When he painted himself or other artists he was relentless in his insightful psychological investigations of his subjects. Artists he admired included Vincent Van Gogh and Francis Bacon. Their faces fascinated him, as did their work, and he created many portraits of these two extraordinary individuals".

Impression 3:
A sometimes marine artist ... in love with Ultramarine,  celebrating the view from his balcony over Sydney harbour.

oil on canvas, 203 x 365 cm, 1975

It was hanging beside a wonderful John Olsen, Five Bells (oil on hardboard, 1963) on the day i visited, which i thought most apt for the two were good friends. My thanks to the Gallery of NSW who gave me permission to take these photos of Brett's The Balcony.

Brett Whiteley The balcony 2 hanging beside John Olsen's Five Bells
in the Gallery of NSW.

Below are some details i photographed from close up.

Detailed views from Brett Whiteley's The balcony 2.

Also on the harbour is the famous Sydney Opera House which he started to paint in 1971 while it was still being built. He had just returned from New York and was now living at Lavender Bay from where the Opera House was very visible.

Brett Whiteley, Opera House, 1982, oil and mixed media on canvas, 203x244cm
[image link from]

It was first exhbited in 1972, but in 1982, after some finishing touches, Brett gave it to Qantas (the airline) in exchange for free air travel. They decorated their club lounge at Sydney airport with it for amost 20 years before selling it off at auction.

Although the proceeds went towards establishing the Qantas Foundation Art Award, aimed to encourage emerging Australian artists, this corporate trading of creative soul bring some lines from Bob Dylan's (with whom Brett hung out while in NY) All Along The Watchtower to mind:
"Businessmen they drink my wine
Plowmen dig my earth
None of them know along the line
What any of this is worth".

See Brett's view from his Lavender Bay window in this clip (trying to ignore the fatuous tone of the narrator)

Impression 4:
Animal lover.

Well, he did say,
"Art should astonish, transmute, transfix. One must work at the tissue between truth and paranoia".

Brett Whiteley, Baboon, mixed media on panel, 90 x 77 cm, 1978
[image from ]

Actually, this painting is part the self-portrait triptych entitled Art, Life and the Other Thing which won the Archibald Prize in 1978. explains the significance of this work:
"In the lower left panel is a baboon that represents the addicted self of the artist or the "monkey on the back". The baboon is handcuffed and pinned to the ground with nails. It has its mouth open, screaming, while a hand in the top left corner of the panel offers him a syringe of heroin".

Despite his struggle with his drug addiction, Brett was to eventually die from it in 1992.

Though as Barry Pearce explains,
"Brett Whiteley is Australia's most sublime painter of birds. They have appeared, often larger than life, in many of his most important paintings. To him, birds are the essential symbol of the song of creation… It is not too fanciful to think of Whiteley’s bird paintings as self portraits"

Brett Whiteley, Untitled (Bird), oil on board with mixed media, 82 x 86 cm, 1978
[image linked from]

Impression 5:
Portrait artist.

Brett Whiteley, Head of Christie, oil on board, 70cm x 61 cm, 1964
[image link from]
In this instance, of the British necrophile murderer, John Christie.

"Whiteley was an avid researcher for detail and the Christie Series in particular signify a fascination with the macabre. John Christie was a serial killer who lured woman to his home only to gas them to death and then rape the corpse. Whiteley spent many hours researching newspapers and case files to then create the series of photographs, screen prints and large mixed media paintings".  (Saville Galleries)

Impression 6:
Sometimes landscape artist in love Australian natural forms

Anything resembling the natural Australian female form, actually.

Brett Whiteley, The Olgas for Ernest Giles,
oil and mixed media on board,  210 x 240 cm, 1985.
[image link from]

This painting was inspired by Brett's trip to central Australia in the early 1980's and was painted in  tribute to the 19th century explorer to whom it is dedicated. It has been described as "all tits and bums", and yes, it does remind one of Brett's earlier nudes. Having been to the Olgas myself, I can attest to their rounded sensual forms, though walking among them gave me a distinctly eerie and numinous feeling, nothing like the rollicking love-buds celebrated here.

The Olgas sold in 2007 for AU$3,408,000.

UPDATE 6-1-12:
My interest in Brett Whiteley has surged again to the point that i have embarked on a series of works starting with contemplations in ink and leading via lino cuts to a large works in oil.

Harry Kent,
Brett Whiteley contemplates old age.

Harry Kent,
Brett Whiteley in Ultramarine

Viewers can jump to the start of the series HERE .



  1. I love impression #5... you cant go wrong with a portrait of a murderer.

  2. Hello harry, thank you for this post. I didn't know the man but his work is really awesome. Now i'm going to google him some more. Enjoy your holidays!

  3. Hope you’re enjoying your vacation. Thanks for the post on Brett Whiteley, I wasn’t familiar with him, I’ll have to look him up. BTW I love that self-portrait you did with the charcoal and oil. It has such an interesting texture and feel and you’re right about the eyelids, that part came out exceptional.

  4. all this post is fantastic !! camon !!
    what is this !!!
    great ... this is great !!!

  5. Fabulous

  6. What amazing work. The works you posted make me want to see more--I'll google.

  7. Thanks you for the view into an interesting mind!
    Good to learn about extraordinary people!!

  8. Harry,

    What an amazing soul he was. No, I wasn't familliar with him either, and I thank you for the illumination.

    I see so many things - I see Bacon, I see Steadman, but at the same time, it's uniquely Whiteley. Stunning!

    Hope all is well on your end,

  9. thanks for introducing me to Brett's work WOW. Can't wait to look at more.
    Love your rags self port.