Baldessin/Whiteley and the curator / by Geoff Harrison

Sometimes a 'curator's perspective' can lift ones appreciation of an exhibition from moderate to considerable.  Emeritus professor Sasha Grishin's talk on the Baldessin/Whiteley show at the National Gallery of Victoria (Federation Square) is a case in point.  Both Brett Whiteley and George Baldessin were born in 1939, both had difficult childhoods, both enjoyed considerable success in their respective cities; Melbourne (Baldessin) and Sydney (Whiteley), and both had relatively short careers.  Baldessin's was ended in a fatal car accident in 1978, Whiteley died in 1992, although the last decade of his life was somewhat unproductive.

 Whiteley                                The Spray At Bondi    (1981)

Whiteley                                The Spray At Bondi    (1981)

I was aware of Whiteley's difficult childhood, largely the result of being sent to a boarding school at Bathurst when he was 8.  He hated every minute of it.  But I was not aware of Baldessin's.  He was born in Italy and his mother left for Australia shortly after with the intention of finding work and then bringing her family over - but the second world war intervened and George was shunted around from relative to relative, not seeing his mother again until he finally arrived in Australia at the age of 10.  They were never close. 

 Baldessin         Part of his MM (Mary Magdalene) at Rue Saint Denis series  1976 

Baldessin         Part of his MM (Mary Magdalene) at Rue Saint Denis series  1976 

Both artists rejected the abstract expressionist movement of the time and focused on more figurative work.  Both of them were concerned with the human condition and the duality of human nature.  One of Whiteley's more celebrated series of paintings was based around the serial murderer John Reginald Christie in his 10 Rillington Place series.

Both artists explored themes of sexuality in an urban environment and witnessed the rapidly changing world following WW2 including the cultural upheavals of the 1960's and 70's.  Both artists were sculptors and well as 2D artists and both were strongly influenced by British artist Francis Bacon.

 Whiteley                      Black - The Get Laid Totem

Whiteley                      Black - The Get Laid Totem

The highlight for Whiteley fans will probably be his 22 metre long "American Dream" which was painted in the late 1960's while he and his family were living in New York - a savage critique of life in America, which as Grishin points out, seems just as relevant today in Donald Trump's America.  Overall, a powerful exhibition.

 Baldessin                               The Performer

Baldessin                               The Performer