Brett Whiteley (1939 – 1992)

For the way his poetic mode of expressionism and artistic brashness made him a key figure of Australia’s avant-grade art movement, Brett Whiteley became one of the most well-known and respected artists of the twentieth century.

Demonstrating an unusual talent for accentuation, deploying an effective colour range, and dealing with the often simple themes of distorted, abstract nudes and primitive shapes, Whiteley’s large canvases have proven to produce a powerful and compelling impact within the national and international art communities.

Born in Sydney in 1939, Whiteley grew up in Longueville, NSW. Demonstrating a gifted artistic talent from an early age, he won his first art competition when he was just seven years old. After he found a book about Vincent Van Gogh on the floor of a local church, Whiteley began to experiment with styles based around the art of Van Gogh and it was this that changed his perceptions of the world around him.

As a teenager Whiteley was sent to boarding school at Scots College, Bathurst where he painted on weekends and continued to develop his art. In 1956 he was awarded first prize in the Young Painters’ section of the Bathurst show.

Leaving school mid-year in 1958, Whiteley took up night classes in drawing at the prestigious Julian Ashton Art School in Sydney where he studied for a year while working at an advertising agency.

In 1960, aged 21, Whiteley left Australia on a Travelling Art Scholarship (judged by Sir Russell Drysdale at the Art Gallery of New South Wales). One of the works he submitted to win the scholarship was called Sofala. This image painted in 1956 showed slightly abstracted forms created in brownish shades- it was this distinct style which would ultimately come to define the artist’s work.

By 1961 Whiteley settled in London where he soon established a credible reputation in mixed exhibitions at the Whitechapel and later the Marlborough galleries. During his time In London, Whiteley met many other notable painters, including fellow Australians, Arthur Boyd and John Passmore. As Australian artists were looked on favourably by both the British public and elitist art circles, this became a particularly significant time for the Australian art industry.

After meeting the director of the Whitechapel gallery, Whiteley was included in the group show ‘Survey of Recent Australian Painting’ where his Untitled Red Painting was bought by London’s Tate Gallery. This made Whiteley the youngest artist to have ever been bought by the Tate, and it was this fact which helped his reputation to grow world-wide.

The extent of the artist’s initial success was perhaps made most apparent when he won the International Prize at the second Biennale de Paris (the International Biennale for Young Artists) in 1962 and in the same year held his first one-man exhibition at the Matthiesen Gallery. During this time in London, Brett Whiteley married Wendy Julius, a marriage that would last for over 25 years.

Whiteley’s painting developed rapidly during his time overseas. Greatly influenced by the modernist art of the sixties, his works painted during this time show abstracted, fluid forms. This distinct style of Whiteley’s is well-reflected in his well-known Christie series of works, created in 1964 after he became fascinated in the murderer John Christie who had committed murders in the area near where Whiteley was staying at Ladbroke Grove.

He painted a series of paintings based on these events, including Head of Christie. Whiteley’s intention was to portray the violence of the events, but not to go too far in showing something that was too shocking. The painting shows a warped and distorted face with a harsh expression. In the rest of the series, Whiteley deploys a colour range of black, white, ochre and pink with great facility, and this, combined with the simplicity of themes dealing often with fragmented nudes and visceral shapes came to underline the artist’s definitive style.
Whiteley’s abstract and fluid style turned increasingly to figuration, and his paintings became progressively more underlined with images of sex and violence. His work began to incorporate collage elements such as fibreglass shapes and photographs. He exhibited widely during these years, including in Australia, France, Belgium and Italy.

In 1967 he exhibited at the Pittsburgh International Carnegie Institute in the United States and was awarded the Harkness Foundation Scholarship. He lived in New York for 18 months where he widely experimented with drugs and alcohol. Many of Whiteley’s works painted during this time express these experiences when it was believed that illicit drugs acted as a way of bringing the ideas from his subconscious.

One of his works produced in New York was made of many different elements, using collage, photography and even flashing lights, with a total length of nearly 22 metres. However, his gallery, Marlborough-Gerson, refused to show this work which he had been working on for over a year. Distraught with their refusal, Whiteley returned permanently to Australia in 1969 after a brief stay in Fiji.

By the beginning of the seventies Whiteley was involved with The Yellow House artist’s community in Potts Point, Sydney and was seen as one of the leading figures of the avant-garde art movement.

In 1972 he began work on Alchemy and by the following January it was complete. It was exhibited at the Bonython Gallery in Sydney. This incredible 18 panelled work was interpreted as an illustration of Whiteley’s life’s journey, from birth to death, and the notion of transformation. It also came to feature on a Dire Straits album cover.

He exhibited at The World Expo in Washington in 1974 and was famously quoted as saying in an interview that he had ‘moved from alcohol to more serious mind altering chemicals’.

Whiteley’s acclaim continued to grow throughout the seventies and eighties. In 1975 he was awarded the Sir William Angliss Memorial Art Prize. In 1976 he won his first Archibald prize with Self-portrait in the studio and the Sir John Sulman Prize for Interior with Time Past (genre painting).

In 1977 he won the Wynne Prize for The Jacaranda Tree (On Sydney Harbour), and in 1978 became the only Australian artist ever to consecutively claim all three art prizes; the Archibald, Sulman and Wynne.

Whiteley was awarded the Wynne Prize again in 1984, and the following year he purchased an old T-shirt factory in Surry Hills, Sydney and converted it into an art studio. Following his death, the studio was converted into a museum housing an extensive array of Brett Whiteley’s work and memorabilia. In 1991 he was awarded the Order of Australia (General Division).

In the last years of his life Whiteley travelled extensively, taking in England, Bali, Tokyo, and spending two months in Paris in an apartment on Rue de Tournon. On 15 June 1992 he was found dead at the age of 53 from a heroin overdose in a motel room in Thirroul on the NSW coast.

In 1999 Brett Whiteley’s painting The Jacaranda Tree (1977) which had won the Wynne Prize, sold for $1,982,000, a record for a contemporary Australian painter.

Today Brett Whiteley’s artwork is highly sought after and represented in many private and public collections. He is represented by the Tate Gallery, London; Art Gallery of New South Wales; Contemporary Art Society Collection, London; Newcastle City Art Gallery, New South Wales and the Brett Whiteley Studio in Surry Hills, which houses an extensive array of his works.

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