Prolific, intense and successful, Whiteley’s art and life have been difficult to separate. Twenty-six years after his untimely death, his work lives on as part of our present whilst his colourful life story fades into the fabric of history. Baldessin/Whiteley: Parallel Visions at the National Gallery of Victoria (until 28.1.19) is a chance to reassess. Brett Whiteley and George Baldessin, printmaker of figurative expressionist etchings, were born in the same year but there is little else to tie them together and I will leave Baldessin to another time.
The Whiteley works span his entire oeuvre – from his 1956 travelling scholarship win and early abstracts to his late Sydney Harbour pictures, stopping by his London Christie works and his New York period on the way.
The earliest paintings – tentative, evocative, nuanced – are heavily influenced by Lloyd Rees and Russell Drysdale; the latter was the judge of Whiteley’s scholarship win. In Sofala (1958) earth-rich reds, warm greys and creams are woven into a flattened and simplified image of a country town. The horizon line sits up close to the top edge of the painting – we are immersed in a sparse domestic world clinging to life on a harsh but harmonious crimson land. Shades of Nolan, Drysdale and Tucker infuse Whiteley’s sensibility at this stage. His later rococo line is absent, pre-dated by the pared and scraped back forms more consistent with the drought and angst-stricken images of Australia that had begun to make such an impact on London, chiming, as they did with the mood of post war existentialism.