41. BRETT WHITELEY
Analogies aside, it is easy now to forget just how astonishing Whiteley really was. The present writer, as a gawking student, well remembers the audacious artistic and well-reported impact that this young striped-trousered, tousle-haired wunderkind made in the Sixties. Has any twenty-year old artist ever appeared on the front page of The Australian newspaper ever since?
The insightful social and historical commentators Professors Donald Horne and Geoffrey Searle were absolutely right: post Olympics Australia had, in a decade, accelerated around an important corner and fuelled by the Poseidon share market boom the country hurtled toward a new burgeoning sense of national and cultural self identity. It was clear to all but the insensitive. In such a heady climate, Whiteley seemed to be nothing less than a cultural avatar.
Whiteley’s Table and Fruit of 1978 is sedately suspended in its own pictorial space. It bears no locational referents, such as walls or floorboards and there is no hint of perspectival depth. Its carefully balanced images seem to hang almost as abstracted elements caught in a loosely applied expanse of glowing late-afternoon setting-sun burnt orange tones, almost floodlit in their reflective intensity.
The painting is divided in two visual fields, the lower of which is almost devoid of images save for two spindle-shaped legs on the right side of an occasional table, whose edge demarks the lower register of the painting. This lower section is painted in a vertically graded lightening of tone that leads the viewer’s eye towards to the upper register and its seemingly casual arrangement of domestic items.
The lower section of the painting, if scrutinised in isolation from the rest of the picture plane, bears a striking similarity to the openly placed and elegantly elastic shape-form abstractions of the much-admired Irish artist William Scott (1913-1989), whose work was most prominent when Whiteley was in London in 1960. After the artistic offerings of London and Europe, Whiteley returned to Sydney in 1969 as charged up as a jump starter pack.
Looked at in this way Whiteley’s painting Table and Fruit of 1978, painted nine years after coming home, serves as a significant pictorial record of the thirty-nine year-old artist’s transition away from the near abstraction of his English-based Bathroom Series paintings of the early and mid Sixties and toward the growth of his Australian-based semi-naturalistic depictions. Both modes co-exist as bands of artistic compositional procedures in this painting and each balances and complements the other.
The upper section of the painting shows a tabletop whose dark umber toned surface holds two handmade vases, a wooden bowl of unidentifiable fruit, two bananas, an empty cameo photo frame and a clump of two indeterminate blue flowers and four white roses. The blurred shadows of these objects show different light sources that, once again, disturb any naturalistic understanding of the painting’s spatial dimensions. Whiteley has freely used his favourite Ultramarine Blue colour to unify the various shaped elements on this tabletop and its use is evident as a type of unity by repetition painterly dotting of the picture surface.
The result is a restrained horizontal tableau of complementary colours and hues in blues, oranges, whites and yellows that range across the upper centre of the canvas and form the main visual focus of the painting. This upper central eye-level section presents as a visual study, an optical meditation, on the formal beauty and potential compositional impact of a restrained palette. The surrounding space of this section of the painting is ambiguous in ways that subvert any readings of implied pictorial depth. This has the effect of further disturbing and disorienting the viewer. It is as though Whiteley wants the viewer to be released from the seductions of pictorial fidelity and thereby be freed to enjoy the lateral progression of forms and colours as a type of painterly “melody”, a colouristic refrain, that “breaks” into the empty “silence” of the canvas. This interpretation is bolstered by the placement of the lower part of an open window in his studio-home that partially reveals a bay side view that is common in most of his famous Lavender Bay paintings. Through this open window flows a gently curving stream of air that wafts from the exterior “space” into the implied “space” of the room of the still-life composition. This stream “caresses” the bowl of fruit and forms the only interruption to the painting’s stress upon the pictorial flatness of the painting.
Taken as a whole the painting, like many of his works of the time, emphasises the two-dimensional qualities of the composition. The stream of air is rendered in such a way as to thread together inside and outside elements and acts a contrapuntal note within the composition.
It is more than likely that Whiteley created this painting by viewing the scene on the surface of a mirror. The image held by a mirror’s surface is a reflected one and hints and clues of three-dimensionality are suppressed – in a mirror an image is viewed as a two-dimensional entity that is distinctly different from the same image viewed by the eye, with all its optical featuring and spatial reading abilities. If this is the case then Whiteley’s Matisse/Scott-like seen from above “melodic” and colouristic refrain of a painting falls somewhere midpoint between his investigations of planar form in two rare and significant paintings: Magnolia of 1978 and Still Life with Magnolia of 1980, both in private collections in Sydney.
Whiteley’s most characteristic pictorial format is one where the painted scene is viewed slightly from above, so that the elevated viewpoint foreshortened the composition and thereby allowed more visual information to be crammed into the picture plane. Horizons lines are de-emphasized so that the picture plane is tilted upward in the manner originally instigated by the great French artists Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and Pierre Matisse (1869-1954). Astute artists, such as Whiteley, always agree that since paintings must hang on flat surfaced walls they themselves should harmoniously fall in line with visual flatness. The generally adopted rule was that Modernist paintings, after the invention of photography, should not “punch a hole in the wall” with any hint of perspectival depth.
Whiteley’s Table and Fruit of 1978 displays the confluence of two sets of artistic attributes. Firstly, it rests upon a more than competently resolved compositional transition from form-shape abstraction in the lower register to a lyrical and colouristic semi-abstraction in the upper register. Secondly, the work displays a deftness of brushwork and a honed awareness of the importance of negative and positive spaces in ways that create a painting that positively pulses with crammed complementary colours and orange, ultramarine and aubergine hues that enliven what can rightly be called a colouristic banquet - a feast for the eye.
“Brett Whiteley”, obituary, The Times, London, 18 June, 1992
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 to 23 August 2009, Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2008
Gray, R., “ A Few Takes on Brett Whiteley” Art and Australia, vol 24, no. 2, Summer 1986
Hawley, Janet, Encounters with Australian Artists, St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1993
Heathcote, C., “Whiteley: the pleasure king of modern art”, The Age, Melbourne, Thursday 18 June 1992, p.14
Hughes, R., The Art of Australia, Melbourne, Pelican, 1970
McCulloch, A., “Letter from Australia”, Art International, October, 1970
McGrath, Sandra, Brett Whiteley, Sydney, Bay Books, 1979
Pearce, B., Brett Whiteley, Art and Life, Sydney, Thames and Hudson and The Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1995
Pearce, B.; Whiteley, W., Brett Whiteley: Connections, Tarrawarra Museum of Art, Healesville, 2011
Smith, B.; Smith, T., Australian Painting 1788-90, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1991
Thomas, D., Outlines of Australian Art: The Joseph Brown Collection, South Melbourne, Macmillan, 1989
Wilson, G., Rivers and Rocks, Arthur Boyd and Brett Whiteley, Bundanon Trust, West Cambewarra, NSW, 2001
Associate Professor Ken Wach
Dip. Art; T.T.T.C.; Fellowship RMIT; MA; PhD.
Former Principal Research Fellow and Head,
School of Creative Arts
The University of Melbourne