In 1977 Brett Whiteley mounted a small exhibition at Robin Gibson Gallery in Sydney. The solo show, titled 'Rivers', ran from 1-19 March and included one tapestry, eleven paintings and six drawings. The works executed between 1974-1977 depict large landscapes of rolling hills, open plains and winding rivers. Always inventive and experimenting with alternative mediums, The River is one of two tapestries conceived by Whiteley.
Of all the themes Whiteley explored in his career, it was landscape that would give him the greatest sense of release. "Sometimes, I have to paint pictures that have an effortless naturalness, not artificial or synthetic, not manufactured - pictures that have no affection through mental tricks, but graceful and according to nature. Every part should be poetic and responsible for its own existence; it should always be easy to take; and I try to change the meaning of the thing being painted into a new image - an elevated feeling, a metamorphosis." (Brett Whiteley quoted in S. McGrath, Brett Whiteley, Sydney 1979. p.216)
During the 1970s Whiteley often returned to the countryside of his childhood around Bathurst and Carcoar in New South Wales. This tapestry relates closely in content to paintings depicting Carcoar, landscapes characterised by the repetition of certain images, colours and motifs. The River also refers to the palette of Baudelaire's Drive, executed a year earlier. Sandra McGrath suggests the river landscapes are a "romantic celebration" of the country of Whiteley's boyhood. (S. McGrath, Brett Whiteley, Sydney 1979. p.206)
The composition of The River is dominated by the sweeping s-curve of the river. It cuts through the landscape in a gesture that is at once dramatic and graceful. Barry Pearce notes "at the root of Whiteley's work was a draughtsmanship of stunning virtuosity capable of capturing the poetic arabesque of a river in a single sweeping line." (B. Pearce, Brett Whiteley: Art and Life, London 1995. Blurb) Scattered across the surface of the work is a fascinating array of details: birds, trees, rocks and stars. The recurring motifs reflect Whiteley's frame of mind. For example, the arabesque of the river echoes the flight path of a bird, which in turn represents the artist's relaxed journey through the landscape.
The palette is a sensual combination of deep blues, rich chocolate browns and creamy white. In order to reflect the colours used in his oil paintings, wool for the tapestry was dyed to Whiteley's specifications. The striking white and blue of the river is echoed in the decorative border of the tapestry. The two bands woven down either side add a sense of weight and emphasize the vertical reading of the work. The border also serves as a reminder of the craftsmanship involved in weaving a tapestry. The surface reveals the delicacy and uniqueness of texture, reflecting Whiteley's experience of nature.
The River is numbered one of an edition of six, however, only three tapestries were ever produced. The weaving was done at Tapisserie D'Aubusson, located in France, 380 km south of Paris. The workshops at Aubusson have existed for more than five centuries and are regarded as pre-eminent in the field of art tapestry making. Employing natural fibres such as wool and silk, the tapestries are worked by master craftsmen, weavers and dyers over a period of many months. The workshops have produced tapestries for artists such as Picasso, Braque and Miro, as well as Australian artists Charles Blackman and John Coburn. The River is a wonderful example of the union between the unique vision of the artist and the artisans' fulfilment in craftsmanship.