In writing about Brett Whiteley, it is tempting to simply present the facts and let the reader draw his/her own conclusions, such are the contradictions. He claims that at the age of about 5 he re-experienced his birth. He said it was a fearful experience. He claims he saw 2 words on the wall of his mother’s womb. Security. Rebellion. He had to decide which one he would go towards.
In an ABC program focussing on his work “Alchemy” he discusses his life in a boarding school at Bathurst. He left the security of his mother and found himself in a boarding school “with these morons who talk like rabbits about tractors and seeds. You are penned in, you don’t know what the crime is (most horrible).” So he tried to imagine a world that was more constructive and meaningful. “There were bus trips to church where you were given stained glass window meaningless talk then be taken back school for lunch.” There is the oft told story of him finding on the church floor a book about Van Gogh and suddenly he felt there was a meaning to existence. He knew it was in him and had to find a way to get it out.
So it’s a bleak picture that he is portraying here, and yet it’s documented that he was given paints and brushes and allowed to produce works at the rear of the classroom, and he would often return to Bathurst later in life to recharge the batteries.
In an interview with Barry Pearce many years ago, Whiteley’s widow Wendy described Brett as a driven artist. “He wanted to create his own world and move away from childhood. We were curious and obsessive, we wanted to take things apart. He viewed contentment as a dangerous state, bovine. He needed to put his hand in the fire.”
Some interesting observations were made about Whiteley by his co-workers at Linton Advertising Agency where he worked in his mid-late teens. They felt he was going full speed at the world with a sense of seeking compensation. There was a disquiet about him which he disguised by moving fast.
Whiteley threatened to walk out of school if his mother left for England. She left anyway and Brett felt abandoned. However he received encouragement from his father Clem in his desire to become an artist.
Of the Christie series (works based on the London serial killer John Christie) Wendy said Brett had a lot of pain in his life and so did she. The death of his father in 1963 raised a lot of questions. It was recognition that evil and ugliness, good and beauty coexist. It was about this time he became aware of Francis Bacon and his ability to deal with alienation whilst producing beautiful things.
Of the monumental work American Dream, Wendy described New York as floundering in the late 1960’s and Brett pushed himself to the extreme and it took its toll. American dream was Whiteley’s response to New York and what was going on there. “The centre panel looks like he vomited all over the canvas which was painted in a drunken state of rage and fear.”
“He had this desire to know everything….but not being prepared to accept that there are a lot of things you may never know. He couldn’t concentrate on one thing at a time and became really overloaded in New York.”
Pearce described American Dream as having trauma and failure written all over it, because Whiteley’s intentions were absurd. “He aimed at nothing less than to challenge America and change it.” Pearce thought the painting was less about America and more a portrait of Whiteley himself “whipping up hell and heaven to extend the possibilities of art far beyond what it could achieve.”
American Dream was never exhibited in America, the Marlborough-Gerson gallery refused to take an interest in it, and Whiteley fled to Fiji to recover – without Wendy and daughter Arkie.
In 1972-72 Whitley produced another monumental work “Alchemy”, described by Pearce as another self-portrait but without the fierce political agenda of its predecessor. Drugs and alcohol took its toll on Whiteley’s health during the production of Alchemy and viewing the ABC program based on this work, his motivations for it seemed incoherent at times.
It was after he and Wendy moved to Lavender Bay in 1974 that heroin began to play a major role in their lives. Wendy spoke of spending time with some very crummy people and the ”whole tragic thing”. In spite of his addiction, Whiteley produced some excellent work, but “he was just defeated in the end.”
In a letter to his mother written in the latter part of his life, Whiteley mentions her inability to spawn love, a difficulty that he inherited to some degree and this accounts for their vigorous independence.
Pearce argues that in Whiteley’s hunger for physical intimacy, reflected through the sexual themes of his art, emotional intimacy was not part of the game. In his last days he finished up with neither.
He died alone from a drug overdose in a hotel in Thirroul south of Sydney in 1992, aged 53.