29. BRETT WHITELEY
Brett Whiteley’s Study for Autumn (Near Bathurst) - Japanese Autumn of 1987-88 presents the opportunity to possess a late-period painting that amply displays the artist’s acute “eye” for visual impact and compositional panache.
The present painting was created just four years before the artist’s much lamented and untimely death at the Thirroul Beach Motel in Thirroul, a coastal town just North of Wollongong in New South Wales. Paul Keating, the then Prime Minister of Australia, said that he had a “high personal regard for him and his work” and added, “his immense contribution to our nation’s art and culture will be remembered”.1
The painting, full of verve and typical brio, was originally in his sister’s collection. Significantly, it shows Whiteley’s very rare venture into gestural abstraction – in fact, about as far as he ever moved in that artistic direction.
It’s not that Whiteley was afraid of abstraction; it’s just that he always attempted to do the opposite: in essence, abstraction took reality and attempted to turn it into an idea – Whiteley, on the other hand, took an idea and attempted to turn it into reality. Why then, did the artist make the sporadic move into the strikingly competent abstraction shown in his Study for Autumn (Near Bathurst) - Japanese Autumn?
The answer to this seemingly rhetorical question is threefold. Firstly, the present painting of 1988 is an important and revealing study for the left side of Whiteley’s directly related and very large three-section painting Autumn (Near Bathurst) - Japanese Autumn of the same year in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. However, its relationship to this work is not subsidiary. The present painting has an obvious stand-alone independence with a prominent “jutting” right-sweeping visual “movement”. This compositional attribute lends it a dynamic quality that, in its related painting, leads the viewer’s eye to the vertical rectangle on the right of the AGNSW work. By contrast, the present painting squared off and reduced in size as it is, utilises the visual impact of this dynamic angularity and escalates its compositional power by truncating its visual movement at the right-hand side of the canvas, where it “slams” into attention. As well, the present painting has distinct differences from its later use in the AGNSW painting: its daub-like forms and smears of pigment are more non-specific - in the Sydney gallery work, the central triangular wisp is transformed into the vague shape of a kangaroo; the lower rock-like section next to a blue pond is changed to the shape of a snail shell and the pond is absent; as well, the seemingly random patches of colour are given more realistic interpretations in the forms of dead trees, rocks and fallen logs. The present painting also has a more distinct figure and ground relationship in the manner of many American Abstract Expressionist paintings; the AGNSW painting lacks such compositional interaction and relies more upon the depiction of what appears to be a large expanse of chocolate brown earth punctuated by more recognisable elements. In short, the present painting “reads” more as a separate entity – one that is neither dependent nor defined by its relationship to the later AGNSW work.
Secondly, the painting plays off Whiteley’s inherent love of asymmetry. The present painting, Study for Autumn (Near Bathurst) - Japanese Autumn of 1987-88, has no visual centre. It has this in common with Whiteley’s justly famous Beach Series of paintings with their opened-out vistas and bathing figures placed as carefully as rocks in a Buddhist monastery garden; a pictorial space where, as in the present painting, all movement is arrested. It is worth noting that asymmetry does not present pictures, only scenes – as though one was peering through a section cut in a sheet of cardboard held up to the eye. This wide-angle “letterbox” way of looking and formatting, with its scanning hints of recognisable imagery, may be also seen in his related and highly accomplished Oberon of 1987, currently held in a private collection in London. There, and in the present painting, everything is “out of the picture”, since no picture is being constructed and all one concentrates upon is the odd, yet jaunty, arrangement of pictorial items. So it is in the present painting: its forms seem to have come from a ‘caught on the lam’ view – perhaps a photograph, a wall with remnants of old posters, a building’s protective hoarding, even a close-up view of a terrazzo floor. Whatever the case, Whiteley’s magpie imagination is seen at its most open and succinct in his Study for Autumn (Near Bathurst) - Japanese Autumn.
Thirdly, besides the title, there is something distinctly “Oriental” about Whiteley’s Study for Autumn (Near Bathurst) - Japanese Autumn of 1987-88. Certainly, Whiteley was well acquainted with Eastern Art and had had a particular take on it. It seems most likely that he often took note of the lyrical charm of Chinese and Japanese paintings and screens – after all, he called his Mount Olga series of paintings “Chinese”, in that they reflected the grandeur, scenographic and awe inspiring qualities of so many Oriental landscape paintings. In other words, Whiteley had an acute “eye” in that he so often noticed that which went unnoticed by others. Chinese vases, Japanese prints, screens, calligraphy, kimono fabrics, bas-reliefs on bronzes, marquetry and lacquer-ware chests – all these varied elements widened his visual “vocabulary” and honed his visual literacy. Given this, there is little doubt that Whiteley was aware of the deft paint handling and compositional sophistication to be found in the paintings of the Japanese artist Kenzo Okada (1902-1982) whose works won considerable success in American galleries in the 50s and 60s and were presented in a major and much lauded retrospective exhibition in Japan in 1982. Okada’s flatly applied paint handling, his 'torn-paper' forms, their 'scattered' placement and the elegant 'softness' of his creations all find some echo in Whiteley’s Study for Autumn (Near Bathurst) - Japanese Autumn and its closely related Autumn (Near Bathurst) - Japanese Autumn in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. There is an important difference: Okada was being the 'Eastern' in American Abstract Expressionism; Whiteley was not being 'The Other' – he was bringing the 'Eastern' to Sydney. In other words, Whiteley was the greater assimilator – the greater absorber. With Okada, the 'edge' went to the 'centre'; with Whiteley, the 'centre' went to the 'edge'.
Yet, there is no mistaking it: Whiteley, for his own ends, could and often would integrate an Oriental mindset. It is worth minding oneself and thinking of all this as prototypical of a Pacific-Rim mentality. This is exactly what throbs through Whiteley’s Study for Autumn (Near Bathurst) - Japanese Autumn of 1987-88, just as it did in most of the fine paintings of the great Ian Fairweather (1891-1974) - the first major Australian artist to have his brush guided by lands to Australia’s North.
The impressiveness of the present painting rests upon its visual power rather than any painterly texture. It is not flamboyant or foppish – it speaks of a released elegance rather than any forced emotion. As a consequence, Brett Whiteley’s rare and highly accomplished Study for Autumn (Near Bathurst) - Japanese Autumn of 1987-88 stands apart as a significantly abstracted example of his creative ability to mentally 'enter' a landscape and to 'exit' it through refracted imagery. As always with Whiteley it’s a process of imaginatively scanning the scene – here in his Study for Autumn (Near Bathurst) - Japanese Autumn he immerses and disperses with the flair of a consummate master.
1. Wilson, A, “The day that Brett Whiteley paid price for hunger that drove him”, The Australian, 18 June 2014
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Brett Whiteley Studio, Sydney, Art Gallery
of New South Wales, 2007
Art Gallery of New South Wales, 9 Shades of Whiteley, Regional Tour, (Gold Coast Regional Art Gallery, Lismore Regional Gallery, New England Regional Art Museum, Maitland Regional Art Gallery, Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery), 12 July 2008 - 23 August 2009, Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2008
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Heathcote, C., “Whiteley: the pleasure king of modern art”, The Age, Melbourne, Thursday 18 June 1992, p. 14
Hilton, M.; Blundell, G., Whiteley: An Unauthorised Life, Sydney, Pan Macmillan, 1996
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Associate Professor Ken Wach
Dip. Art; T.T.T.C.; Fellowship RMIT; MA; PhD
Former Principal Research Fellow
and Head of the School of Creative Arts
The University of Melbourne