Throughout his extensive body of work, certain themes remained constant in the art of Brett Whiteley. Of these, landscape and the female nude were undoubtedly his pre-eminent subjects and the ones upon which his reputation was made and maintained.
Whiteley's first series of Bathroom Nudes was painted in 1963, the year before daughter Arkie's birth and a time when his art was in transition between the abstract and the figurative. His eventual committment to the figurative tradition stemmed from influences as diverse as Bonnard and Bacon and remained constant throughout his pursuit of a modern aesthetic.
The role of the nude in Whiteley's oeuvre may be clearly charted, beginning with the 1960s bathroom paintings and continuing on through the beach scenes, the Christie works and the torso studies for the Sculpture series. Although the model for the painting was Whiteley's late daughter Arkie, (an actress who worked in film and television both in Australia and the United Kingdom), the painting is not a literal portrait. Throughout his career, Whiteley's primary model for his nudes was his wife Wendy. Yet when the nude appears in his work she is generally faceless and idealised. Certain figural elements that appear in Arkie Under the Shower, such as the elongated spine, generous bottom and the energetic spray of the shower, recur in works throught the 1970s and 1980s and had their genesis in the early 1960s paintings.
While it is not unusual to find blue and white tiling in a bathroom, anyone familiar with Whiteley's work would instantly recognise his signature use of a particular shade of ultramarine. This blue dominated Whiteley's work from the mid-seventies, when he first started to paint Sydney harbour, and is found in major works by the artist such as The Jacaranda Tree (On Sydney Harbour). It also crept inside to flood the interior of works such as the 1975 Archibald Prize winning Self-Portrait in the Studio. Whiteley once stated that: "Windsor and Newton Deep Ultramarine oil colour has an obsessive ecstasy-like effect upon my nervous system quite unlike any other colour." (Artist's statement cited in S McGrath, Brett Whiteley, Sydney, 1979, p.214)
This use of intense colour is one of the greatest differences between the Bathroom nudes of the 1980s executed in Australia and the early 1960s works which were painted in London. As can be seen in Arkie Under The Shower, Whiteley also abandoned the steeply-angled and multiplied points of view in favour of a more traditional frontal perspective.
Arkie Under The Shower was painted in Sydney in the mid 1980s, a period in which Whiteley's critical reputation was at a peak. In 1983 the Art Gallery of New South Wales held a solo exhibition of his work titled Another Way of Looking at Vincent van Gogh. The artist was also awarded the Wynne Prize for landscape in 1984 for South Coast After the Rain, while 1986 saw the exhibition and launch of the book Brett Whiteley - Graphics at the Newcastle Region Art Gallery. In 1985 Whiteley bought a former T-shirt factory in the Sydney suburb of Surry Hills which he converted to a studio and which now houses the Brett Whiteley Museum.
Arkie Under the Shower shows the nude in an unusal posture in comparison with Whiteley's other shower scenes. While Whiteley's trademark focus on the nude's shapely bottom and the curve of her spine is retained, the stance of the nude, who is shown bending forward, is more rare. There is an odd combination of vulnerability and vigour in the figure, with the watery stream of her hair contrasting with the muscular strength of her legs.
The painting featured in a 1989 television programme titled Difficult Pleasures, directed and produced by Don Featherstone, which was also shown in conjunction with the Brett Whiteley retrospective exhibition which toured Australia in 1992.