Thursday, September 6, 2012

Brett Whiteley dances in the wilderness

Harry Kent, Brett Whiteley dances in the desert, oil on canvas, 50x60cm

I am haunted by the image of Brett Whiteley dancing in the desert. And so i painted this exploratory small oil, full of unresolved problems, but a springboard to larger paintings to follow that will flesh out the idea.

However, i was so dissatisfied with this painting that i deleted this blog post the following day, hoping to re-paint this subject. This was some months back, prior to painting Brett Whiteley dances on water. But time has run away with me. The new work is not done.  But for the sake of completion am re-posting it now. 

It started when i read Steve Meacham's story in the Sydney Morning Herald (here) (re-run in the Mudgee Guardian four days later ) about the controversial and now notorious time that Brett Whiteley painted a series of faux Aboriginal rock paintings in what might have been a sacred site.

Meacham wrote:
"It's summer, 1970. And Brett Whiteley strips naked to paint an Aboriginal-inspired mural on a sandstone underhang at The Drip gorge, scoured by the Goulburn River over millions of years into one of the most beautiful scenic wonders of NSW."

Why the Mudgee Guardian? Because The Drip Gorge lies near the town of Mudgee and in subsequent years there had been much debate in the pubs as to the value of the 'aboriginal art' in the Gorge. The matter had recently been brought to a head by the intention of a mining company to flood some of the nearby land for mine workings.

Some investigative journalism unearthed the truth ... not ancient Aboriginal paintings but hippy doodles from 1970. But despite repeated flooding over the years the paintings are still there today in good condition.

The truth of their origin was clinched by the discovery of a piece of film in which we see BW, naked, dancing and painting. You can watch the brief clip HERE .

So now the local Council has an original Brett Whiteley under its care while the mining company "acknowledges the potential significance of these paintings" and promises that "our mining operations will not disturb these paintings at all.”

Meanwhile, i am left with the haunting image of Brett Whiteley dancing and painting in the Australian landscape. 
Picasso once said, "Painting is a blind man's profession. He paints not what he sees, but what he feels, what he tells himself about what he has seen", which is what i guess i'm doing in this Brett Whiteley series.

So, in my mind's eye i see Brett Whiteley dance corroboree.
I see him dance his Dreaming.
I see his paintings flow from his Dreaming.

I see him dance in the desert ... out in the Never-Never.
Out on the wastes of the Never Never -
That's where the dead men lie!
There where the heat-waves dance forever -
That's where the dead men lie.
[from Barcroft Boake, "Where the Dead Men Lie"].

Although Brett Whiteley was also a deliberate artist, articulate about the skills of trade, well versed in Western and Eastern visual languages, it seems to me that more than any Australian artist he painted from intuition, made a cult of his intuitions, sang and celebrated his intuitions like St Joan her voices. John Olsen refers to BW's artistic 'instinct'.

But an artist who puts himself in thrall to his voices - who lives by exposing his Unconscious to the public - travels a barren and rocky road among society's institutions. For this is a hostile landscape that desiccates the soul. There is no shade or shelter from the politics of The Arts and the imprecations of the culture police ever ready to tell you what you should have painted instead.

So I see him dance through T.S. Eliot's "Wasteland", the army of mediocrities and brown-noses bringing 'no relief'.

"What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water."

All the while he ached for water ... for solace ... for love.

He thought a cool spring lay in public approbation and the adulation of a plethora of hippy hangers-on. But that turned out to be a mirage.

So he took what solace he could, and in the end, like St Joan, died for his voices.

But not defeated.

For i also see him dance Zorba's dance of triumph-amid-catastrophe in the deserts of the heartland.

As i watch Zorba, i see Brett, now transfigured into Bob Dylan's Mr Tambourine Man:

"to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow."

But we who remain have not forgotten.

I had originally embedded a YouTube clip here of Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates dancing Zorba's dance on the beach in the movie, Zorba the Greek. But Fox has sinceblocked the clip for copyright reasons, even though it was only a couple minutes from an entire movie.

Furthermore, Fox has had every clip of any description relating to Zorba removed from YouTube. So i have done the same here and taken down the now frozen image of Zorba.

Even worse, i could not even find a photograph of Anthony Quinn as Zorba on the web through Google. Copyright with bloody vengeance, though I think the only thing Fox has achieved is killing off masses of free publicity for a movie they could be selling. Entire generations will now never even hear of Zorba.  

Well done Fox executives. I hope it makes you a bundle of money, though i fail to see how!



  1. Oh, what a post, Harry! I see the dreamtime in that painting - dancing amongst the old ones made of stone and clay and pigments rich for the taking - to rub on the body as on a canvas! And thanks for sharing Zorba - got me dancing now! Have a great weekend.

  2. Unfortunately FOX has blocked the Zorba cut but I'll find it somewhere else - I'm ready to dance and FOX be damned!

    1. Thanks for letting me know. I foolishly didn't test it when i reposted. Have now replaced it with a piece of my mind courtesy of FOX.

  3. He ached "for water...for solace.....for love." It seems he lived his life at full throttle; not many do that--maybe he had no regrets.

    1. Yes, full throttle is right. He maybe didn't have a lot of regrets but he did find himself in rather a lonely place at the end.

  4. Hello Harry, it's good to be here to review your good work,
    I like this especially.

    "Meanwhile, i am left with the haunting image of Brett Whiteley painting and dancing in the Australian landscape.Picasso once said," Painting is a blind man's profession. He paints not what he sections, but what he feels, what he tells himself about what he has seen. "And that is what I'm doing in this series Brett Whiteley.

    Beautiful and profound words about the act of painting!
    Good weekend

    1. Thanks, Paulo. I'm not surprised Picasso's words speak to you. Your work is such a vivid statement reinterpreting what you have seen and read. Great stuff!