A thrilling biography of the flawed genius Brett Whiteley will make people cry for the artist and revisit his art, writes Peter Craven
Brett Whiteley was the great streak of lightning on the Australian art horizon. From 1960, no one had a vaster gift, more sheer brilliance or a bigger impact on the Australian imagination. No painter since Sidney Nolan in his heyday — and it’s heartening that the old Ned Kelly myth-maker called into Whiteley’s studio late in the piece — said: “He’s one of us.’’
Whiteley died, alone and only 53, in 1992, of a drug overdose in a motel at Thirroul in Wollongong, on the NSW coast south of Sydney.
He was a painter with a great gift: a genius, a junkie, a rock star of a man. Yes, when that was a precarious eminence to emulate, as well as a young person’s game, and Whiteley’s constant quest was to find himself, and he wore it like a badge of honour and a tragic destiny.
Ashleigh Wilson has written a full-dress life of Whiteley that speeds and soars and never ceases to do homage to the colossal confrontation and contradiction the artist represents.
Wilson’s is an authorised biography and Wendy Whiteley, who divorced Brett in 1989 (after she had successfully won her battle with heroin and he had abjectly failed the 100th time), has stood as the Madonna to Wilson’s St Luke, whispering of annunciations and magnificats.
Just occasionally, reading the early chapters, you wonder how much an anecdote has been (or could be) checked independently, though the gain far outweighs the loss. It’s a breakneck narrative and initially you consider if you need a bit more detail about the boy whose father ran a cinema and whose mother worked for him and became pregnant.
We hear that Whiteley was expelled from Scots College in Sydney’s Bellevue Hill for stealing art materials but it would be handy to know what the lover of Rimbaud read at school and to hear more teachers and contemporaries.
The teenage Whiteley apparently belonged to a masturbation circle — and Brett sketched the emblem of what was known as the “hairy balls club” — but you do think if the biographer has asked himself if this practice may not have been a bit rarer in the mid-1950s than it was in the 1990s. The same might be said of Wendy’s abortions — the first of which Brett’s father, Clem, paid for — in the first phase of the relationship.
Russell Drysdale awarded Whiteley the Italian government scholarship when Whiteley was just 20 in 1959. We see the couple young and up in Paris and Rome, and Brett in the first flush of what looks like the long goodbye of expatriation. Whiteley is already talking, when he hits Rome, like a Rimbaud in the making.
“Across to St Peter’s,” he says, “with Michelangelo’s masterpiece standing blue and brutal; the Romans speeding themselves to work or nowhere. A 40 lire ride to the Borghese gallery where the sledgehammer effect of Italian yesterdays comes crashing down.”
Suddenly Whiteley is sounding like a genius — and although “sounds like” is no proof in literature, let alone painting, it’s a tremendous blast in Wilson’s narrative.
He compares himself with Rothko and says, “He is a painter of essences, I’m a painter of essentialism.” He drinks in Modigliani and Montparnasse and, after the Giottos and Cimabues have “confirmed his complete faith in abstract art”, goes on an impassioned quest for Piero della Francesca, besotted with “his flattened space and geometric precision and perspective”, which he finds “utterly contemporary”.
At his first show in London, everything sells and he is the great hit at Bryan Robertson’s Whitechapel Gallery with the Recent Australian Painting exhibition in 1961, and Roy de Maistre, the expatriate Australian painter, declares, “The best is Brett Whiteley. He is the one who will last.”
Whiteley shines before an extraordinary audience including Francis Bacon, Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland. It’s the period of Kenneth Clark’s passion for Australian art.
The young Robert Hughes, in the catalogue introduction, says Australian art shows, “an exhilarating sense of starting from scratch” because it is “a hymn to the indifference of the universe”.
How fascinating that not only does Whiteley talk about the reconciliation of abstraction and Brett Whiteley: Art, Life and the Other Thing By Ashleigh Wilson Text Publishing, 410pp, $49.99 (HB) the suggestion of “human activity” via “sex, turpentine and doubt” and “a network of human planes that stop the viewer and didn’t disappear into illusionism”, but there is also an instinctive recognition from London art critics, at once rhapsodic and analytical, of his work.
They cotton on to the “ferociously organic” ghosts of figuration behind the abstraction.
John Russell writes in The Sunday Times of Whiteley’s “obsessional techniques” and his “half-assimilated sexual imagery”. He says his achievement is staggering for a 22-year-old — and adds: “Life’s punishments are still to come.”
A figure from the lower depths of crime and punishment, the Rillington Place serial killer John Christie, is Whiteley’s next subject, in 1964. But where some saw Whiteley grovelling in the shadow of Bacon’s sense of sinister glamour, Hughes thought the work transcended its sensationalist occasion and showed Whiteley’s “power for transformation”. However “patchy” he might be “his intellectual appetite is matched by no other Australian painter”.
The intellectual appetite, alas, is always buzzing off into a sort of bubblegum mysticism on the cusp of the counterculture that fell into the vat. And this is central to Whiteley’s imagination, so that Donald Friend recognises how “extraordinary and very impressive” work coexists with “fashionable and quite meaningless gimmicks”.
Whiteley belongs to the first generation to swallow something like a hippie mythology. He can drivel on about how “everything is all just part of an enormous cosmos and we’re involved in the buzzing and booming”, while also saying, “How can I take myself seriously? 98 per cent is compromise, predictable action, sludge.”
He adds — humorously and slyly — “That 2 per cent equals 100 per cent, is so sweet, so powerful.”
But Whiteley can sound like an overgrown teenager — not simply when he’s in his 20s — and talk about, for instance, Bob Dylan not just as a great songwriter (or poet if you like) but as a kind of god. This Whiteley is off into the mystic and forever citing the gnostic Gospel of St Thomas or RD Laing’s injunction to take “a voyage from the inner to the outer”. No wonder Edward Lucie-Smith says of him that he is a wunderkind suffering growing pains.
Inevitably he quits the drab gumtrees of Australia — and the urbanities of London — for New York and the Chelsea Hotel and lives there from 1967 to 1969. Along the way he meets Herbert Read’s son, Piers Paul Read (later to become the dour, impressive Catholic conservative writer), who describes him to his mother as a nice chap “with blond golliwog hair that made him look ridiculous”. Whiteley’s New York show is, Read says, “like a highbrow chamber of horrors”. It is fun, but is it art?
In New York he meets Andy Warhol, Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin, who looks after the Whiteleys’ young daughter, Arkie, while Brett and Wendy are out on the town. There is the sheer ontological pretentiousness of Whiteley in this New York phase. He rages at America like every drug-taking New Left layabout and burns with an anger that seems his own private hysteria but also the all too familiar cliche of his times. He paints The American Dream, a huge work spread over 18 panels, and in New York no one will exhibit it. He is at the epicentre of the world, at the best and worst of times, the supremely heady 60s and that world — which he thrives on — receives him not.
Was it his blacking factory, was it his ruin? He clearly wants to be the brightest star in the highest world. He wants to be a superstar painter and in personal magnetism (which is not exactly attractive) he is. And all the while he’s saying things such as, “I must put the force to beauty now before it devours me. Do you think we’re devils? Terrible thought, isn’t it, but exciting! Shhhh.” Shhhh indeed.
The Whiteleys go to Fiji in 1969 but are booted out over opium possession so that, without any prior intention of coming back to Australia any time soon, they settle in Sydney, in Lavender Bay on the Harbour.
Whiteley muses about Australia, “my breeding home, my stupidity, my cradle”. He receives the backing of Patrick White, who says Whiteley is “making the right use of” Bacon, and warns against “the awful social and commercial rackets in Australia that will try to kill your genius as they have picked off many lesser talents. I hope you will be strong enough to hold out against them.”
The critics respond with some negativity to his next show: Donald Brook in The Sydney Morning Herald says Whiteley needs “some-