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Brett Whiteley

 (1939 - 1992)
Brett Whiteley was active/lived in Australia, England.  Brett Whiteley is known for abstract, conceptual painting and sculpture.

Brett Whiteley

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Brett Whiteley
Brett Whiteley was an Australian artist. He is represented in the collections of all the large Australian galleries, and was twice winner of the Archibald Prize. He had many shows in his career, and lived and painted extensively in Italy, England, Fiji and the United States.

Educated at The Scots School, Bathurst and The Scots College, Bellevue Hill, Brett Whiteley started drawing at a very early age. While he was a teenager, he painted on weekends at Thurstan and Canberra with such works as The Soup Kitchen (1958). Throughout 1956-1959 at the National Art School in East Sydney, Whiteley attended drawing classes. After meeting the director of the Whitechapel Gallery, he was included in the group show 'Survey of Recent Australian Painting' where his Untitled Red painting was bought by the Tate Gallery.

In 1962, he married Wendy Julius and their only child, daughter Arkie Whiteley, was born in London in 1964. While in London, Whiteley painted works in several different series: bathing, the zoo and the Christies. His paintings during these years were influenced by the modernist British art of the sixties - particularly the works of William Scott and Roger Hilton - and were of brownish abstract forms. It was these abstracted works, which lead to him being recognized him as an artist, right at the time when many other Australian artists were exhibiting in London. He painted Woman in Bath as part of a series of works he was doing of bathroom pictures. It has primarily black on one side and an image of his wife Wendy in a bathtub from behind. Another in the series was a more abstracted Woman in the Bath II, which owed a debt to his yellow and red abstract paintings of the early sixties.

In 1964, while in London, Whiteley was mesmerized by 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 which people would not want to see. During this time, Whiteley painted works based on the animals at the London Zoo, such as Two Indonesian Giraffes, which he found sometimes difficult because of how much the animals would move. As he said: "To draw animals, one has to work at white heat because they move so much, and partly because it is sometimes painful to feel what one guesses the animal 'feels' from inside." (Whiteley 1979: 1) Whiteley also made images of the beach, such as in his yellowish painting and collage work The Beach II, which he painted on a brief visit to Australia before his return to London and his winning of a fellowship to America.

In 1967, Whiteley won a Harkness Fellowship Scholarship to study and work in New York. He met other artists and musicians while he lived at the Hotel Chelsea. His first impression of New York was shown in the painting First Sensation of New York City, which showed streets with fast moving cars, street signs, hot dog vendors, and tall buildings. The Hotel Chelsea displays several of Whiteley's paintings from the period when he lived there including Portrait of New York, which hangs behind the reception desk.

One way that America influenced him is the scale of his works. He was very much influenced by the peace movement at the time and came to believe that if he painted one huge painting which would advocate peace, then the Americans would withdraw their troops from Vietnam. Still fairly young, Whiteley was idealistic and caught up in the great peace movements of the 1960s, with the protests against America's involvement in the war in Vietnam. The work was called The American Dream; it was an enormous work that used painting and collage and anything else he could find to put on the 18 wooden panels. It took up a great deal of his time and effort, taking up about a year of working on the piece full time. It started with a peaceful dreamlike serene ocean scene on one side, that worked its way to destruction and chaos in a mass of lighting, red colours and explosions on the other side. It was his comment on the direction the world would be headed and his response to a seemingly pointless war which could end in a nuclear holocaust.

Many ideas from his work may have come from his experiences with alcohol, marijuana and other drugs. He believed that many of his ideas have come from these experiences, and he often used drugs as a way of bringing the ideas from his subconscious. He sometimes took more than his body could handle, and had to be admitted to hospital for alcohol poisoning twice. Around him at the Hotel Chelsea, other artists and musicians took heroin, which Whiteley did not take at that time. The painting which was finally produced was made of many different elements, using collage, photography and even flashing lights, with a total length of nearly 22 metres. However Marlborough-Gerson, his gallery, refused to show this work which he had been working on for about a year, and he was so distraught that he decided to leave New York, and he 'fled' to Fiji.

Whiteley made paintings in Fiji of the people, similar to the way that Paul Gauguin had travelled to Tahiti to paint native people and culture in the nineteenth century. Whiteley painted the native people of Fiji, such as in Fiji Head - to a creole lady which incorporates text as well as a downward looking portrait.  During his time in Fiji, he started painting birds, which were a source of great beauty for him, and which he enjoyed painting. Whiteley had experience in painting animals from his zoo series in London. A stylized image of a bird he painted, Orange Fruit Dove Fiji, shows the bird looking towards fruit on a plant, while it is sitting on its nest with eggs shown below.

One image which uses Van Gogh's style in a unique way is Night Cafe. He took the van Gogh painting and stretched the lines of the room to a single vanishing point, creating an image which appears fast moving and extremely vibrant and dynamic. Another work where imagery is borrowed from the art of another artist is in Rembrandt, where he painted or repainted his own version a large somewhat gloomy looking self-portrait by the Dutch master.

Whiteley loved painting Sydney Harbour views in the 1970s such in his painting Interior with Time Past, which shows an interior and exterior view starting with a room that leads through open windows to the harbour full of boats outside. The table in the front of the room close to the viewer has minutely decorated vases and small objects, while a drawing on the left and a sculpture to the extreme right show how Whiteley often used erotic images in his works.

In the late 1970s, Brett Whiteley won the Archibald, the Wynne and Sulman twice. These are considered the most prestigious art prizes in Australia and are held annually at the Art Gallery of NSW.

He was the subject of an ABC television documentary called Difficult Pleasure directed by Don Featherstone in 1989, which showed him talking about many of his main works, and his recent works such as ones done on a month long trip to Paris, one of his last overseas trips. He also showed his large T-shirt collection, and talks about his sculpture, which he said is an aspect of his work that many people do not take seriously. Difficult pleasure is how he described painting, or creating art stating, "Art is an argument between what a thing looks like and what it means."

Whiteley became increasingly dependent on alcohol and became addicted to heroin, leading to bouts of schizophrenia[citation needed]. Whiteley's work output began a steep decline, although its market value continued to climb. He made several attempts to dry out and get off drugs completely, all ultimately unsuccessful. In 1989, he and Wendy, whom he had always credited as his 'muse', divorced.

In the Queen's Birthday Honours of 1991, Brett Whiteley was appointed an Officer (AO) of the Order of Australia. On 15 June 1992, aged 53, he was found dead from a heroin overdose in a motel room in Thirroul, north of Wollongong. The coroner's verdict was 'death due to self-administered substances'.

In 1999, Brett's mother Beryl Whiteley (1917-2010) founded the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship in memory of her son.


Biography from Deutscher and Hackett Melbourne
Whiteley returned to Australia in 1969 after nine years abroad and, after initially renting the top floor of the Lavender Bay property, in 1974 he and his wife Wendy purchased the house with panoramic views of Sydney Harbour, finding inspiration through 'the stunning harbour views in all their variation of mood and tone through the windows ...'1  The window became a significant three-dimensional tool for Whiteley upon his return to Australia, creating a tangible object for the viewer to grasp.

A solo exhibition at Bonython Gallery in Sydney, 1975, featured eighteen of his 'windowscapes' which dominated this solo show, comprising exactly half of the exhibition, which was divided into three categories: Windows, the River and Nudes.  The central painting of this exhibition was Henri's Armchair, 1975, an important window scene. Providing an insight into Whiteley's psyche, this painting quotes Matisse's desire for a pure and serene art form 'devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which might be something like a good armchair in which to rest from physical fatigue'.2

Whiteley's first years in Lavender Bay signified the beginning of one of his greatest periods, an art form concerned with the 'concept of beauty, with sumptuous, glorious pictures celebrating the harbor and the birds, and the table tops too'.3  There were of course hints of his inner turmoil, such as escape routes plotted by ships as they coursed their way across the harbor, and the heavy rain and dark monotones of July 2, 1975 Rainy Day - All Day evoke a poignant emotion.  It was here at Lavender Bay that Whiteley found a somewhat uneasy peace; a reconnection with Australia that was shadowed by his tumultuous private life.

Wendy Whiteley recalls the joy of returning home; 'In a sense Lavender Bay was Brett's return to paradise, having come from a very anxious situation - and it is paradise'.4  In the years that followed, Whiteley achieved great success as the winner of the Archibald Prize and Sir John Sulman Prize in 1976, the Wynne Prize in 1977, and all three in 1978.

1. Pearce, B., 'Persona and the Painter', in Pearce, B., Brett Whiteley: Art and Life, Thames and Hudson, Melbourne, 1995, p. 35
2. McGrath, S., Brett Whiteley, Bay Books, Sydney, 1979, p. 180
3. Wendy Whiteley, interviewed by Barry Pearce, 'Recollections', in Pearce, B., Brett Whiteley: Art and Life, Thames and Hudson, Melbourne, 1995, p. 48 4. ibid. Cassi Young

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About  Brett Whiteley

Born:  1939 - Australia
Died:   1992 - Thirroul, Australia
Known for:  abstract, conceptual painting and sculpture