Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Brett Whiteley sees red


Harry Kent, Whiteley sees red I
charcoal, ink and acrylic on Arches paper, 42x61cm

Brett once described his childhood as being filled with Napoleonic rage. (He liked everything in heroic proportions).

His sister Frannie, in her biography of Brett, writes of his childhood sense of abandonment when he was sent to boarding school and when the marriage of his parents failed and mum left home. And his grief over the loss of some close friends in death such as Joel Elenberg. And in his final years his sense of isolation, loneliness, and depression.

In his younger years he had been an obsessive hoarder (birds eggs, stamps, money, soft drink) and later, hoarding firewood made him feel secure. No one has said he was a kleptomaniac but he did used to pinch stuff. Frannie records the small skull artifact he stole from a Balinese grave despite the taboo attached. Blundell, in his unauthorised Whiteley, tells of the time Brett bestowed a massive collection of art books on a friend in London - all previously stolen from a library and hoarded.

I think all the above is symptomatic of Brett carrying a void within that longed to be filled. He hungered for love and belonging,  and sought an artist's fame and public approbation as the next best thing.

Harry Kent, Whiteley sees red II
charcoal, ink and acrylic on Arches paper, 42x61cm

When he met criticism or downright rejection of his work, he was cut adrift, disoriented, filled with despair ... filled with rage. Frannie records his sense of profound hurt when critics attacked him. She had seen him literally cry over harsh criticism. Instead of enjoying accolades after thirty-five years of hard work, in his final years he was bewildered as to why he should be dealt with so cruelly.

Harry Kent, Whiteley sees red III
charcoal, ink and acrylic on Arches paper, 42x61cm

His wife Wendy once said that while he was nice to live with, he could be vicious and switch from gentle to hard in a second.

He painted about rage. Rage against the dying of the light. The rage of the baboon with its paws nailed to addiction. Protective fury over his paintings if they were damaged or threatened. Fury at being told what to do by others.

Harry Kent, Whiteley sees red IV
charcoal, ink and acrylic on Arches paper, 42x61cm

And in his discourse there was fire.

Seems to me he spoke with passion and conviction, holding forth interminably as if to allow no silence in which doubt could creep in.

Frannie speaks of his his endless flow of wisdom, one-liners, put-downs and penetrating witticisms and idealistic tirades on everything from Communism, Australia's need to Asianize, war, pacifism, the Australian psyche, Bob Dylan, and always ...

... art.



  1. Evening Harry,
    These are very powerful pieces and I am proud to report that I get them. The depression, rage, sadness and vulnerability are all superbly documented in these telling works.
    You've upped the ante with these Harry.

    1. Hi Gary. Thanks for taking the time to comment on what are little more than doodles searching for ideas.

      I wasn't even going to post them for they are rough and far from being to everyone's liking. So i quickly buried them under an oil painting post, haha.

  2. whenever I read these posts I feel profound sadness for your subject...sadness and also almost a kinship. I can see how any artist can fall prey to depression, because people ("reviewers", so-called "friends" and "patrons") seem to run the show with their opinions. Whitely and all other artists hope to share what they know, and yet it seems the roles can become reversed where others hope to shape the artist (and/or destroy him!)

    1. Too true, Celeste.

      Too many critics imagine it's their job to tell artists what or how they should paint rather than seeking the more modest role of simply elucidating and appreciating what they did actually paint.

      Arists create. Critics, like lice, live off that creation.

      Yet they show little humility about their subservient and dependant role.

      I could live with that. But what i find intoleable is the destructive role too many have taken upon themselves - and they are so smug about it.

      At least one critic, named by Frannie as contributing to Brett's pained final years, is still prominent our press, busily pronouncing on what size paintings should be in the Archibald Prize.

      I wonder if he ever has any regrets over Brett. I suspect not. Too convinced he was right.

      Yet did any one word he ever wrote help to improve a single brushstroke of Brett's? I doubt it very much.

      He and everything he ever wrote will be long be forgotten while Whiteley's contribution to Australian culture will grow and shine over the centuries ahead.

      Small comfort to the artist who in his life-time had to wear the opinionated and corrosive tripe peddled in public by a cultural vandal.