33. BRETT WHITELEY
Across his prodigious and celebrated body of work which spanned the disciplines of draughtsmanship, painting, sculpture and printmaking, it was Brett Whiteley’s mastery of the drawn figure which bookended, and in many ways defined, his artistic career. Whiteley won his first drawing competition at the tender age of seven and continued to create meticulous, assured, yet seemingly effortless images until his untimely death in 1992.
Whiteley’s drawings in ink range from finely rendered works executed with a pen, such as Frangipani 1976 or The Roofs of Paris 1989 to bold works on a more imposing scale employing a large brush, including The Cushions c1975 or Wendy Drunk, 11pm from 1983. The current Nude c1978, which measures almost a metre in height belongs to this latter group.
Executing a drawing on this scale with the necessary fluidity of line requires consummate skill, with the artist himself stating, ‘…I find that the big sloppy Chinese brush, if I can crack a drawing in that medium, I can think of them as my highest drawings.’1
Under the rubric of ‘Drawing Or How To Get It On’, Whiteley documented the qualities of the different instruments with which he created his drawings, contrasting the ‘sensitive harmonics’ of pen and ink, of which he said ‘the rapier and scalpel are cousins’, with the properties of the brush.2 The brush, he noted, ‘will do anything it’s asked. I’ve even seen it do a few things it’s told’,3 pointing to the technical prowess required to wield such an instrument in order to produce the ‘slithering calligraphy’ which was the artist’s aim.4
Drawing was for Whiteley neither a quiet nor a contemplative process. Line flowed from movement, with the artist’s energy directly fuelling the production of his work, which was often accompanied by loud music and shots of whiskey to set the pace. Fellow artist Garry Shead (born 1942) observed the sheer physicality of Whiteley’s drawing process, stating that ‘He drew speedily. He didn’t ponder. The whole drawing thing by him was quite balletic. It involved dancing, standing back and posing… Not self-consciously – a beautiful style, it was.’5
Whiteley’s fascination with the female figure in candid, occasionally unflattering, poses is a feature of much of his output from the 1970s. Study for Her (bronze; 130.0 x 57.0
x 21.0 cm) of 1975 depicts the upper torso of a lithe, elongated nude stretching expansively in an unselfconscious yawn. Nude 1976 (illustrated on pages 48-49 of Sandra McGrath’s 1979 publication, Brett Whiteley) is a series of sixteen charcoal drawings which documents the progression from a solitary, but virtuoso line into the consummate end product.
The present Nude c1978, is a highly collectible, generously scaled example of Whiteley’s devotion to the female form, and his unique ability to capture its grace with a mere dozen strokes of his unparalleled hand.
1. James Gleeson interview with Brett Whiteley, National Gallery of Australia, 15 May 1979, quoted in Klepac, L., Brett Whiteley Drawings, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2014, p.21
2. Klepac, p.9
4. Brett Whiteley, letter to Professor Bernard Smith, Lavender Bay, 27 March 1972, quoted in Klepac, L., p.16
5. Dickins, B., Black & Whiteley: Barry Dickins in Search of Brett, Hardie Grant Books, Melbourne, 2002, p.4
Cameron Menzies and Anne Phillips BA (Hons), MA