Brett Whiteley: A Sensual Line 1957-67

June 1, 2010

Brett Whiteley: A Sensual Line 1957-67
By Kathie Sutherland

Looking through a recent auction catalogue I was struck by the estimate given for a picture of a blue and white bird by Brett Whiteley. This attractive but undoubtedly minor work is expected to sell for $500,000-$700,000 – a ludicrous sum for a painting that would never make it into a retrospective exhibition.

Over the past few years no Australian artist’s prices have risen more dramatically – and indiscriminately. Until Sidney Nolan’s First-Class Marksman went for $5.8 million in March, Whiteley (1939-92) held the all-time Australian auction record for his painting, The Olgas for Ernest Giles (1985), sold in June 2007 for $3.48 million. This is a significant painting in Whiteley’s oeuvre, but full of the irritating gimmicks and mannerisms that spoiled so much of his mature work. His previous auction record had been set only months before, with Opera House (1982) selling for $2.8 million. If the Olgas is mannered, Opera House is pure kitsch.

It is typical of the local market that buyers have a strong preference for Australian subjects. A tiny Streeton oil of Sydney Harbour is a valuable picture, but a Streeton painted in Canada is merely a curiosity.

This prejudice hold true even if the artist may be said to have done his or her best work overseas, which is precisely the point Kathie Sutherland is making in this study of the first decade of Brett Whiteley’s illustrious, notorious career.

While noting collectors’ interest in Whiteley’s Lavender Bay paintings of the late 70s and early 80s, Sutherland cannot endorse the escalating prices commanded by the pictures that followed. “Such is the cachet of the Whiteley name,” she writes, “that sometimes over-rehearsed later works – lacking the conviction and distinction of earlier works – have also sold at auction for record breaking figures.”

“Over-rehearsed” is an interesting euphemism. By contrast, she continues, the “inventive and powerful works in Whiteley’s London opus are still relatively unknown and certainly under-appreciated by the wider art collecting community. It is abundantly clear that the Whiteley market is seriously distorted and will remain so as long as commercial considerations claim precedence.”

She concludes portentously: “There is a need to redress that balance.”

This, in a nutshell, is the argument behind the book. The rest of the text is a detailed study of the work Whiteley made in his early years in Sydney, and during an especially fertile period in London, when it looked as if he was destined for international stardom.

In 1967 Whiteley travelled to the United States on a Harkness Fellowship, and all that youthful promise started to unravel in a purple haze of sex, drugs and rock and roll. His artistic ambitions grew uncontrollably, but the discipline and finesse of the London period was lost forever. By November 1969 Whiteley was back in Australia, trading his international hopes for the pleasures of being a local legend. He would dominate the Australian scene in the 1970s, fulfilling Australia’s deep-rooted need for a homegrown artistic genius.

Sutherland is not the first to suggest that Whiteley was a superior artist when he was struggling to make his name in the fiercely competitive London art world of the 1960s. The sensuous early abstractions, his Bathroom paintings of 1962-64, and the Christie series of 1964-65, have an imaginative power that was rarely seen again. In the London pictures Whiteley wore his influences upon his sleeve, whether it was the British artists William Scott and Roger Hilton, or such giants as Matisse and Bacon. We see him wrestling with these influences, discovering a hard-won originality. Each picture is a battlefield, imbued with a tremulous dynamism.

Whiteley burst onto the London scene at the age of 22 as part of a survey of recent Australian painting held at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1961. The director of the gallery, Bryan Robertson, was one of the city’s leading taste-makers, and he fell for Whiteley’s paintings at first sight. “This was one of the great moments of my life in any studio,” Robertson wrote, “The paintings were of startling maturity, richness and spiritual and imaginative poise, perfectly at ease in their medium and wholly original. It was hard to believe that they were by such a young artist.”

In later years, after he had become an official Aussie genius, Whiteley allowed his natural facility to take over. His line became slick and wristy, his colours blandly decorative. He could sell anything and everything he painted, and this was a recipe for self-indulgence.

Having spent much of her working life in the employ of Sotheby’s and Christie’s, Sutherland is well placed to judge the respective merits of the early and later work. She is also the ideal person to criticise the egregious hype that is used to sell expensive paintings to wealthy, status-conscious buyers who see artists as brands rather than fallible individuals. In the world of art there are good and bad works, expensive and inexpensive works. There is no cast-iron correlation between these two standards of value.

One can only admire a scholarly book that includes a catalogue raisonné of the early works, but the project began life as a Masters’ thesis and the writing style retains the dry, clipped tones of the textbook art historian. The design is almost too lavish, with different sized columns of text and multiple typefaces. It is, nonetheless, an impressive publication. As for the argument, I can barely consider it controversial. Was Whiteley’s London work a whole lot better than anything that came afterwards? Indubitably, yes.

Published for the Sydney Morning Herald, June 2010

Brett Whiteley: A Sensual Line 1957-67
By Kathie Sutherland
Pan Macmillan
Hardcover; RRP: $??; 342 pp.