Brett Whiteley

Brett Whiteley

Brett Whiteley (7 April 1939 – 15 June 1992) was an Australian artist. One of the most well known Australian painters of the 20th century, he is collected in most Australian galleries. He had many shows in his career, and travelled extensively.


Early years

Whiteley was born in Sydney, where he started drawing very early in his life. While a teenager, he painted on weekends at Bathurst and Sydney with such works as The Soup Kitchen which he did in 1958. In 1960, Whiteley won a Travelling Scholarship from the Italian Government, and moved to London. One of the works he submitted to win the scholarship was done in images which were slightly abstracted in brownish colours called Sofala; he had painted this in 1956. After winning the scholarship he travelled around Europe, visiting Italy, France and England. He arrived in London at a time when many Australian artists were becoming popular in England. During this period, there was a fascination with Australian art there. Australian artists Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan and Russell Drysdale had become well known and were exhibiting in London, as well as many other Australian artists who were also there. It helped him that Australian artists were looked on favourably at this time by the English public. After meeting the director of the Whitechapel gallery, he was included in the group show ‘Survey of Recent Australian Painting’ where his Untitled Red painting was bought by the Tate gallery. This made him the youngest artist to have ever been bought by the Tate, and it was this fact which helped him to have even more success, such as when he won the first prize for Australia at the Biennale de la Jeunesse in Paris. During the next few years he had much contact with artists in London and in travels to other parts of the world, and it was these friendships and contacts which helped him to become an accepted artist.

//” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

New York

In 1967 Whiteley won a scholarship to study and work in New York. He won this Harkness Foundation Scholarship to New York, and while there he met other artists and musicians while he stayed at the Chelsea Hotel. His first impression of New York was shown in the painting First Sensation of New York City which showed streets with fast moving cars, street signs, hot dog vendors, and tall buildings. He was very much influenced by the peace movement at the time and came to believe that if he painted one huge painting which would advocate peace, then the Americans would withdraw their troops from Vietnam. It was an extremely ambitious aim, to change the opinion of an entire nation based on one picture. But still fairly young, Whiteley was idealistic and caught up in the great peace movements of the sixties, with the protests against America’s involvement in the war in Vietnam. The work was called The American Dream, and was an enormous work comprising many panels, and using painting and collage and anything else he could find to put on the panels. One way that America influenced him is the scale of the works. The large size of artworks painted by contemporary America artists there possibly made Whiteley wish to paint enormous works such as this one. It took up a great deal of his time and effort to paint, taking up about a year of working on it full time. It consisted of eighteen wooden panels, with a series which started with a peaceful dreamlike serene ocean scene on one side, that worked its way to destruction and chaos in a mass of lighting, red colours and explosions on the other side. It was his comment on the direction the world would be headed and his response to a seemingly pointless war which could end in a nuclear holocaust. Many of the ideas from the work may have come from his experiences with alcohol, marijuana and other drugs. During this time, like many others, Whiteley experimented with drugs. He believes that many of his ideas have come from these experiences, and he often used drugs as a way of bringing the ideas from his subconscious. He sometimes took more than his body could handle, and had to be admitted to hospital for alcohol poisoning twice. Around him at the Chelsea Hotel, other artists and musicians took heroin, which Whiteley did not take at that time. The painting which was finally produced was made of many different elements, using collage, photography and even flashing lights, with a total length of nearly 22 metres. However Marlborough-Gerson, his gallery, refused to show this work which he had been working on for about a year, and he was so distraught that he decided to leave New York, and he ‘fled’ to Fiji in the South Pacific, similar to how the last panel of the end of The American Dream showed an island paradise, Whiteley would now seek refuge in one himself.

//” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.


Whiteley made paintings in Fiji of the people, similar to the way that Gauguin had travelled to Tahiti to paint native people and culture in the nineteenth century. Whiteley painted the native people of Fiji, such as in Fiji Head – to a creole lady which incorporates text as well as a downward looking portrait. During his time in Fiji, he started painting birds, which were a source of great beauty for him which he enjoyed painting. The birds which he painted could represent a way of escaping from sometimes violent feelings. He had a violent nature that others noticed. Whiteley had experience in painting animals from his zoo series in London. A stylised image of a bird he painted in Orange Fruit Dove Fiji which shows the bird looking towards fruit on a plant, while it is sitting on its nest with eggs shown below. The bird is bright and striking, with red which could represent blood shown on its body and on its beak. He must have been thinking about Gauguin’s experience in Tahiti, for he painted Gauguin which showed an image of a daydreaming Gauguin against a backdrop of island scenery. He later developed further works based on the art of other artists. In the early 1970s he returned to Australia, an established and collected artist.

//” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.


Whiteley experimented with styles based around the art of Van Gogh, using portraits based on Vincent Van Gogh’s self portraits, such as Vincent. After Whiteley found a book about Van Gogh on the floor of the church in Bathurst when he was very young, it changed his perception of the world around him. One image which uses Van Gogh’s style in a unique way is Night Cafe. He has taken the Van Gogh painting and stretched the lines of the room to a single vanishing point, creating an image which appears fast moving and extremely vibrant and dynamic. Another work where imagery is borrowed from the art of another artist is in Rembrandt, where he painted a large somewhat gloomy looking portrait of the Dutch master.


Part of his work Alchemy was featured on the cover of the Dire Straits live album Alchemy although it had the addition of a guitar with lips held by a hand. The original painting, done between 1972 and 1973 was composed of many different elements and on many different panels, similar to The American Dream. While the idea of the massive work on many different panels had developed in America, this new work was Australian. It had many curved and illustrious shapes, sexual imagery and giant letters IT on one of the panels. Just looking at the elements from which he composed the work shows the wide variety in materials he used; everything from feathers and part of a birds nest to a glass eye, shell, plugs and ‘brain’. It has been regarded as a self-portrait, a giant outpouring of energy and ideas brought forth over a long period of time. He did not even know what it would look like when it was finished. Many of the panels are golden, referring to the process of alchemy. Others are full of tiny drawings and little details showing forms, many of which are based on the human figure, such as ears, hands, body parts and sexual imagery. The work refers to transformation, such as with the mythical transformation of ordinary metal to gold, Whiteley is possibly trying to say something about his personality, that he wanted to change away from various addictions, but was not able to. He is also talking about looking at what does not exist.

Sydney harbour and landscapes

Whiteley loved painting Sydney Harbour views in the 1970s such in his painting Interior with time past, which shows an interior and exterior view starting with a room that leads through open windows to the harbour full of boats outside. The table in the front of the room close to the viewer has minutely decorated vases and small objects, while a drawing on the left and a sculpture to the extreme right show how Whiteley often used erotic images in his works. He painted a view of his friend Patrick White as a rock or a headland in Headland, because he had told Whiteley that in the next life he would like to come back as a rock. Whiteley painted other images of the Australian landscape, including a view of the south coast of New South Wales after it had been raining called South Coast After the Rain. He did paintings of the area around Bathurst, Oberon and also Marulan, all in New South Wales. He painted abstracted images of bush scenes such as The Bush and also images which resulted from experimentation with various drugs, such as alcohol in the humorous Self Portrait after three bottles of wine.

Success with Archibald and other prizes

In the late seventies Brett Whiteley had great success with the Art Gallery of New South Wales, winning all of their major prizes twice. These were the Archibald Prize, Wynne Prize and Sulman Prizes, considered some of the most prestigious, if not the most prestigious art prizes in Australia.

His wins were:


1. Archibald Prize: Self Portrait in the Studio

2. Sulman Prize: Interior with Time Past


Wynne Prize: The Jacaranda Tree (On Sydney Harbour)


1. Archibald Prize: Art, Life and the other thing

2. Sulman Prize: Yellow Nude

3. Wynne Prize: Summer at Carcoar

1978 was the only time that all three prizes have gone to the same person, so this was quite an achievement. He was at the peak of his career. His first Archibald win, Self Portrait in the Studio shows a view of his studio at Lavender Bay overlooking the harbour, with his reflection in a mirror shown at the bottom of the picture, while the painting is primarily a look at his studio, shown in deep, bluish tones. As with many of his works, the viewer is led deeper into the picture with minute detail, and a view of Sydney harbour is on the left which establishes the location of the picture. These paintings along with some of the other works, show Whiteley’s love for ultramarine blue and for collecting objects and for wide expanse of harbour. His second Archibald win, Art, Life and the other thing, again shows his willingness to experiment with different mediums such as photography and collage, and his respect for art history, including an image of the famous 1943 William Dobell portrait of Joshua Smith, which won a court case against people who claimed it was a caricature, not a portrait. He also experiments with warping and manipulating a straight self portrait and altering and distorting the image. He later won the Wynne Prize again, in 1984 with The South Coast After Rain

Difficult pleasure

He was the subject of a hour long ABC television documentary called Difficult Pleasure directed by Don Featherstone in 1989, which showed him talking about many of his main works, and his recent works such as ones done on a month long trip to Paris, one of his last overseas trips. He also showed his large T-shirt collection, and talks about his sculpture, which he said is an aspect that many people do not take seriously about his work. Difficult pleasure is how he describes painting, or creating art: Art is an argument between what a thing looks like and what it means.

Later years

Whiteley became increasingly dependent on alcohol and became addicted to heroin leading to bouts of schizophrenia.Whiteley’s work output began a steep decline, although its market value continued to climb. He made several attempts to dry out and get off drugs completely, all ultimately unsuccessful. In 1989, he divorced Wendy, whom he had always credited as his ‘muse’, and on June 15, 1992 he died of a heroin overdose alone in a motel in Thirroul, north of Wollongong, New South Wales.

In 1999 Brett Whiteley’s painting The Jacaranda Tree (1977) which had won the Wynne Prize, sold for $1,982,000, a record for a modern Australian painter. Before this, his previous highest selling work was The Pond at Bundanon for $649,500

The paintings are the excellent portrayal of the events and scenes that we see around us. The painters are the best cameras of the world. They reproduce many different types of pictures. They even draw imaginary pictures that do not exist in this world. We tend to use both thinned oil paints and dense oil paints. Masterpieces can be dyed more than once, but each time it may be different from the existing paintings


Author: James Presley

I am an artist and I love it. What do I have to do to live from what I love? I'm not dying or cutting me bloody ear off, that's for sure.

2 thoughts on “Brett Whiteley”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s