It takes your breath away

“She puffs at the flames of Whiteley’s reputation
with a style so bouffant it takes your breath away.”

Over thirty years ago I reviewed a book about Australian painter Brett Whiteley, by Sandra McGrath. Whiteley died twenty years ago. What I had to say then, still dazzled and disappointed by a gifted artist’s fall from grace and talent a decade before, is stored on my homepage, and may be worth repeating here. — JT

The Whiteleys
Brett and Wendy Whiteley with their daughter Arkie, 1980s

‘He shines as no other Australian artist has ever shone,’ wrote James Gleeson in 1970. And in 1976 Jeffrey Makin wrote ‘It is now quite clear that there is only one unquestionable genius in contemporary Australian art — Brett Whiteley.’

He has won prizes, grants and scholarships at an average rate of almost one per year since 1960, and recently the number of major prizes showered upon him has been embarrassing.

In this book — the only full-scale study of Whiteley to appear so far — Sydney journalist Sandra McGrath has put together 232 pages of illustrations, family photographs, taped interviews, notes from her own and the artist’s diaries, and selected critical comments.

The book has its faults: no index, some mis-spellings, a catalogue (of 129 black-and-white reproductions) that appears incomplete, but we are not told by how much, nor why; colour plates that are occasionally faulty or out of register, and in many details from paintings, badly blurred; and — incomprehensibly — no list of illustrations.

But it’s a vivid and exciting book to read, and at the price it’s good value for money.

At the outset, Sandra McGrath confesses that the Whiteleys have been friends of hers for many years, and says that she has written ‘very much a personal account of Whiteley’s life and work’. In the welter of print that results from their collaboration a number of fascinating strands are discernible.

We have the external details of the artist’s life: growing up, marriage, travel, exhibitions, prizes, fear and loathing in New York, drug highs in Tangier and elsewhere, idyllic peace for a time in Fiji. Some major influences are discussed, chief among which appear to be Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Matisse, Bacon, Rimbaud and Baudelaire.

Then there are scenes of the artist at work, burning the candle at both ends and painting his way to fame and fortune. Ms McGrath dips her pen into the purple ink for some of these tableaux: “He stalked the work at night, smelling out its weaknesses, critically eyeing lines and shapes, pushing himself into more intense levels of alcohol and drug abuse. The last entry went into the diary at a rain-lashed 3 a.m.…’

And there are many overt attempts at critical analysis. An example is her treatment of Whiteley’s decision to turn his back on the dominant mode of 20th century art, abstraction, which he did in London in 1963. The artist’s notes are not very helpful in explaining this crucial turning-point, and when we come to Ms McGrath’s interpretation of it we are left even more puzzled:

‘Whiteley’s decision, simply stated, was that on a long-term basis he would have to relate to life with all its multifarious images, emotional yaws and historical injunctions. His paintings would recall his own experiences through life in images that would range from an elusive, dramatic and anxious surrealism to images of an intensely private lyrical world in which objects, places and people were all heightened by his own sense of beauty and sustained magically by his imagination.’

Stripped of its rhetoric (‘Simply stated’?), its tautologies and its teleological contradictions, this basically tells us what the artist has done since he made the decision, not why he made it. The crucial problems of formalism, subjectivism and general aesthetics are left crying out for answer, but the answers are not given.

The difficulty that runs through the fabric of this book is that Whiteley is an extremely complicated person. His talent as a painter verges on genius, and often claims it totally; but his thinking is quite another matter. He has littered a number of his works with philosophical notes and poetic jottings, and many of these rambling marginalia are reproduced in this book. ‘Whiteley reads very little,’ McGrath admits at one point; an unnecessary remark, in the face of scrapbook items such as ‘constantly, the similarity, the closeness, of Buddha and Howard Hughes’.

It is a credit to the breadth of Whiteley’s ambition that he should assault the public with fragments of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Zen Buddhism and Left-wing philosophy. The richness of these sources and their impact on 20th century ideas are enough to occupy a thinking person for years. But as James Gleeson put it in a review of a 1972 exhibition: ‘It is an exasperating tangle of deep insights and shallow pretentiousness, of sincerity and sensationalism, of real knowledge and hocus-pocus… ‘

It is in the nature of Whiteley’s impatient personality to fling this mass of material at us half-baked and even less thoroughly digested. That is just where the ideal biographer should step in, clarifying the issues and helping the reader through the thickets of verbiage to the important concepts underneath.

It is easy to criticise Whiteley’s flagrant lack of taste, his garrulous philosophising and his magpie borrowings; what is less easy and more necessary to come to grips with is his genius. In technical terms, this is based on his extraordinary gift with pure line, and more recently on his daring achievements with colour. In broader personal terms it has been made to perch on a pre-fabricated Romantic pedestal that was built in Europe 150 years ago.

Why Whiteley has to go back that far to find a role that is almost a cliche, yet fits his needs; why his skill with paint requires so extravagant a justification to support it; and where the strengths and weaknesses lie in his dangerous juggling with craft, talent, role and pose… these are large questions, and a reader fascinated by Whiteley’s greatness — as I am — will look to this book for answers. They are there somewhere, under the text, but Ms McGrath has failed to unearth them. Where she should explain, she simply paraphrases; where she would be well advised to qualify, she enthusiastically endorses. She puffs at the flames of Whiteley’s reputation with a style so bouffant it takes your breath away.

Relating Whiteley’s first meeting with his wife-to-be, Wendy, Ms McGrath says ‘As a couple they seem to have had the sense of extravagance and style that belonged to another twosome, Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, or maybe even the ill-fated Bonnie and Clyde.’

I don’t know about the Fitzgerald twosome, but for the sake of the Whiteley twosome I trust she didn’t really mean Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, that oafish pair of American murderers from the Depression era. It would be kinder to assume she meant Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, who acted their glamorised parts in the 1967 Hollywood kitsch version of that sad and ugly story.

On the subject of kitsch, we have a later picture of the Whiteley household which, by 1972, had ‘subsided into a “normal” domestic pattern. People came and went, discussed politics, art, and the usual art world gossip… The Whiteleys themselves, usually dressed in flowing white silks and soft exotic materials, were a striking couple with strong fin de siècle intimations [sic]. A photographer from English Vogue captured this quality in a memorable portrait that appeared later in the year. But underneath this apparent connubial calm, Whiteley had again begun to boil…’

The picture of an artist boiling in flowing white silks is one to treasure, but the leap from one cliche (what the bride wore) to another (the artist struggles with his demon) is the more important clue to Ms McGrath’s problems as a biographer: spanning the gamut of emotions from Teen Vogue to The Agony and the Ecstasy, she paints a gaudy portrait of the Artist as a Young Trendy.

Whiteley, acknowledged as a genius by many critics and a vast but puzzled audience, deserves better; and so do we.