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.
Whiteley launched himself onto the British art world at a moment when the interest in Australian art and culture was at full flood. Arthur Boyd, Lawrence Daws, Charles Blackman, Francis Lymburner, Sidney Nolan and Roy de Maistre were in residence. Kenneth Clark was a friend of Nolan and the director of the Tate, Sir John Rothenstein, was the author of a biography on Australian painter Charles Conder. There was a burgeoning sense that Australian conditions – the isolation in particular – were capable of precipitating something vital and original. Two major exhibitions of Australian art were being organised even as Whiteley arrived – one at the Tate, and the other at Whitechapel. Bryan Robertson, director of the latter, had just returned from a scouting trip to Australia when he was introduced to Whiteley in London.
Sidney Nolan had taken decades to break through but Dibbs, [Whiteley] while the dust from the rubble was still rising, made his entrance through the same hole… 
Whiteley’s early abstracts gained immediate attention; their painterly ebullient style exuding confidence and talent. He was included in Robertson’s 1961 Whitechapel show Recent Australian Painting and became the youngest painter to ever be collected by the Tate with Untitled Red Painting (1960). From the same period, Summer at Sigean (1962) is a masterful composition of thick, thin, translucent, opaque, scraped and scored pigment. The bulging, folded and flattened forms occasionally hint at three dimensionality, alluding to both rock forms and flesh but are never representative. Delicate blues, pale ochres, warm pinks and greys sliding along the scale from olive towards orange are woven across the three panelled work.
The best of Whiteley is brilliant. His innate means of approaching the world – apprehending it not as a set of ideas or objects, but as the raw material of the senses with which to play, is apparent from the very beginning. Historians like to make a lot about stories of young artists constantly drawing, and feeding on all the images they can find and Whiteley did just that. But it’s a little like remarking on the fact that monkeys like peanuts. It indicates an appetite, not a commitment. A commitment requires belief which we so often strangle in our young. For eight years following a negative review of his first show, Francis Bacon, a painter of far superior power and innovation, produced nothing that survives today. Let us not pretend that the art world is a simple meritocracy. Art embodies ideals and longings; often these sit too close to values to resist incorporation into agendas, particularly when public collections are involved.
But early success threw rocket fuel on Whiteley’s belief, and that flame never faltered. The quality of the work inevitably did; his art had to mature in full public view. The search for an authentic voice and for what art could do detours through the Christie paintings. Heavily derivative of Bacon, they hover between voyeurism and sensationalism without Bacon’s terror. In his return to representation Whiteley seems to forget the battles he won with abstraction – the successful balance of evocative forms, layering of pigment and subtle transitions of colour.
Things get worse in New York, whence Whiteley departed to conquer in 1967. What to make of American Dream? Hung at the end of this exhibition, the painting makes even less sense than usual. An undigested mix of adolescent kitsch, art-school experimentation and pseudo-prophetic imagery painted with the sensibility of sign-writer, it curves around a dreadful twenty-two metres. I believe small children in Perth are taken to see it.
And then he comes home to Sydney. It’s not happy ever after – far from it if you have read the life story. He never beat his demons; he navigated them. Rimbaud has a lot to answer for. The old idea that one has to be high to be creative dogged him and ultimately brought him down. But in Lavender Bay he did find again a voice of his own. It was patchy, but there were good patches.
There was more of Matisse in him than Bacon now, his love of colour and line became fluent in sight of Sydney Harbour. The spray at Bondi (1981) might be glib, shallow and glitzy (rather like Bondi itself) but he also made Interior with time past (1976) an ode to the studio and the city imbued with a sense of peace in the unlikely colours of orange and green. Mother and Child (1977) and Backview (1976) are line etchings of singular beauty and simplicity.
Whiteley is best appreciated if you don’t look for consistency in either his art or his life. He has left us with some iconic timeless images. We would have liked more.
 Clive James quoted in Ashleigh Wilson’s Brett Whiteley: Art, Life and the Other Thing.
More information and images on NGV exhibition webpage here
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