In 1961 a young man walked into the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London and asked to see its director, Bryan Robertson. ‘He danced and feinted around me full of questions and challenges, a born goader to anyone remotely in authority,’ recalled the curator.
Intrigued, Robertson agreed to visit the artist’s studio in Kensington, and what he saw there astonished him. ‘The paintings were startling in their maturity, rich and spiritual, with immaculate poise, perfectly at ease in their medium and wholly original. It was hard to believe they were by such a young artist.’
This was Brett Whiteley (1939-1992), 21 years of age, recently arrived from Australia via Italy and blazing with a reckless energy. Robertson included the artist in the 1961 exhibition Recent Australian Painting, where his Untitled Red Painting, 1960, was purchased by the Tate, making him the youngest artist ever to have a work of art bought by the gallery. Three years later he was featured in another Whitechapel show, The New Generation, alongside Bridget Riley, Derek Boshier and Patrick Caulfield.
The early 1960s was a thrilling time to be in London. The grim ration-book austerity of the post-war era had given way to a blossoming youth culture, and Whiteley and his beautiful wife Wendy Julius were at the heart of it. Curly-haired and voluble, with a razor-sharp intelligence, Whiteley resembled Bob Dylan, while Julius looked like a Pre-Raphaelite goddess in jeans and a T-shirt.
Their social circle revolved around a large villa that was once owned by William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), on Melbury Road, near Holland Park. The Whiteleys lived in the artist’s studio in the garden, while a group of ambitious twentysomething Australian expats filled the ramshackle rooms of the main house.
Among them was the writer and broadcaster Clive James, who in his memoirs described Whiteley (thinly veiled under the pseudonym Dibbs Buckley) as ‘golden-haired, rugby-nosed and as restless as a surfer on a wet day’. He also noted that while it had taken their fellow Australian Sidney Nolan (1917-1992) decades to break through in the UK, Whiteley ‘made his entrance through the same hole with a Qantas bag over his shoulder’.
The artist’s ascent was certainly remarkable. An exhibition in 1962 in which he explored the erotic female form as landscape was highly acclaimed for bringing a carnal sexuality to abstraction. ‘My libido is as much a part of my work as ultramarine blue,’ he declared, alluding to favourable reviews that said he had brought Australia’s blue skies and sea to the notice of the British public.
The ungovernable force that drove him was never still for long. Within a year, he was experimenting with figuration, producing a series of stunning portraits of Wendy in the bath, which he described as ‘bringing the camera into focus’ after his years of abstraction.
Not only was Whiteley a handful, he was rivalrous to boot, and it was around this time that the young contender decided to take on Britain’s foremost painter, Francis Bacon (1909-1992), saying, ‘You can’t side-step him, you’ve got to embrace him full on.’
A series of works based on the serial killer John Christie did just that. Whiteley exhibited them together with paintings of caged animals from London Zoo at the Marlborough New London Gallery in 1965. Bacon, on seeing the show, felt he had been cannibalised.
A painting (above) and a sketch (below) from the 1965 show will be offered in the Modern British and Irish Art Evening and Day sales on 22 and 23 March at Christie’s in London. The works have a distressed, physical vitality, revealing the artist’s gift for high-speed drama.
Whiteley left London soon after the exhibition and in 1967 won a scholarship to work and study in New York. He moved into a penthouse in the Chelsea Hotel, where fellow residents included Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.
Whiteley became part of the anti-Vietnam War movement and set himself the challenge of creating a work to rival Picasso’s Guernica (1937). The result was the 22-meter-wide painting The American Dream (1968-69), and the effort almost killed him. Overworked and dependent on alcohol and drugs, he suffered a nervous breakdown.
In 1970, after a brief period of recovery in Fiji, Whiteley moved back to Australia, settling in the burgeoning artists’ colony of Lavender Bay in Sydney. A preliminary sketch from his first exhibition on his return (above), featuring a platypus, birds and various totemic sculptures, is also offered for sale.
The exhibition marked a fresh beginning for Whiteley. He devoted himself to creating a new visual language for the Australian landscape, bringing a Matisse-like sensibility to Sydney Harbour. In 1978 Whiteley became the country’s most successful artist, winning all three of its most prestigious art prizes.
However, the frenetic life-force that propelled Whiteley to profound acts of creativity also drove him to self-destruction. In the late 1970s he became addicted to heroin.
The art historian Robert Hughes had observed that Whiteley’s paintings required ‘a lot of existential determination, a lot of guts’ to produce. The artist wanted to compete with everyone and everything, once saying that he tried to work ‘in the manner that rivals nature so that you do challenge God’.
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Whiteley continued these superhuman efforts until his death from an overdose in 1992. In the decades that followed, he became a somewhat forgotten figure outside Australia. However, the 2017 documentary Whiteley brought him to the attention of a wider audience.
In 2020, his work Henri’s Armchair (1974) broke the auction record for the most expensive Australian painting when it was sold for AU$6.1 million — equivalent to around US$4.5 million.