Whiteley

May 13, 2017
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It’s a happy fluke that the release of James Bogle’s documentary on Brett Whiteley coincides with an exhibition by Vincent Van Gogh at the National Gallery of Victoria. Of the many artists Whiteley idolised and copied, Van Gogh was his all-time favourite. They were on first-name terms, with Whiteley always referring to his hero as “Vincent”.

Van Gogh and his motifs recur in many Whiteley paintings, the most unforgettable being the one in which the Dutchman’s severed ear is shown surfing to the beach on Hokusai’s great wave. Like wow, wipeout!

When the Art Gallery of New Wales allowed Whiteley to hold an entire show called Another Way of Looking at Vincent Van Gogh 1968-1983, there was much talk that Brett was actually “completing” Vincent’s work. At one point Whiteley claimed to be predicting how Van Gogh’s painting would have developed had he lived longer. Apparently fate had determined that Vincent would end up painting intense close-ups of his own eyeballs.

Whiteley’s identification with Van Gogh was absolute and presumably sincere. Yet the more one learns about Van Gogh’s life and personality, the more absurd the comparison. Van Gogh hardly picked up a brush until his late 20s, but Whiteley was painting furiously during his school days. By the age of 20 Whiteley had won the Italian Government Travelling Art Scholarship and set sail for Europe. Van Gogh at this stage was working through a series of dead-end jobs, feeling anxious and lonely.

Whiteley was an artistic prodigy who always had people clamouring for his work, while Van Gogh sold only a single painting during his lifetime. Whiteley was a celebrity, Van Gogh a non-entity.

But perhaps the most telling contrast comes in the way each artist felt about his own abilities. Van Gogh was painfully insecure, so unsure of his work that when he finally sold a picture he wondered why they preferred his painting to that of Monticelli – an artist whose murky, repetitive style has not stood the test of time.

Whiteley was never shy when discussing his own “great talent”, or even his “genius”. He seems to have believed he was a genius from day one, and the stellar progress of his early career confirmed him in this opinion. In later life the praise showered on his work, the prizes and accolades, ensured that his greatest worry was how to manage his “gift”. The awesome responsibility of being a genius was perhaps the main reason Whiteley needed to dowse himself in drink and drugs.

All of this is on display in Bogle’s freewheeling portrait of the artist, which offers ample evidence for both the prosecution and the defence when we consider the question of Whiteley’s genius.

It’s the story of a talented, self-confident young opportunist who always understood the value of publicity. In London Whiteley went knocking on the door of Bryan Robertson, the influental curator of the Whitechapel Gallery, and bowled him over with sheer chutzpah. Robertson’s support would open the door to the Tate Gallery, which soon acquired a painting.

In 1964-65 Whiteley produced a series of pictures based on the crimes of serial killer and necrophile, John Christie, knowing it would make headlines. As his ambitions grew, so too did his themes, culminating in The American Dream (1968-69), the monstrous, multi-panelled, would-be masterpiece, painted during a residency in New York, with which he hoped to shock the United States out of its bigotry and insanity. If Whiteley failed singlehandedly to end the Vietnam War and bring about a new respect for civil rights, well that was only because Marlborough-Gerson refused to show the picture.

It may sound completely nutty but Whiteley’s entire career reads like the script of a Roger Corman movie – which may be why Bogle felt compelled to include the full panoply of gimmicks, from small animated sequences to re-enactments of Brett and his wife, Wendy (whom he occasionally called “Queen” or “Sanity”), romping around in the French countryside, or lying stoned on a bed in Lavender Bay. A lot of people have quibbled about these re-enactments, but the story is so surreal it invites an ‘anything goes’ approach.

All this tricksy stuff is perfectly in line with the way Whiteley would stick photos and objects on a canvas, looking for a realism that transcended the possibilities of drawing. It was also much easier and faster, and left a pleasing after-taste of avant-garde.

One could interpret this film as a song of praise for Australia’s home-grown artistic genius, but the footage of Whiteley’s antics and his garbled conversation tends to makes him look like an egocentric prat.

I recalled how Barry Pearce, the curator of the Whiteley retrospective of 1995, lamented the artist’s lack of “intellectual structure and discipline”. That lack is everywhere on display in this documentary, as we watch Whiteley trying on one attitude after another with self-deluding, self-aggrandising sincerity. He may not, after all, have been Australian art’s greatest genius but he has no rival for the title of Clown Prince.

Whiteley
Directed by James Bogle
Written by James Bogle & Victor Gentile
Starring Campbell Greenock, Jessica White, Brett Whiteley, Wendy Whiteley, Frannie Hopkirk, Arkie Whiteley, Jack Barns, Andrew Blaikie
Australia, rated M, 94 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 13 May, 2017