At 21, Whiteley obtained a travel grant and traveled to Italy before settling in Great Britain in 1961, where he exhibited in a survey of recent Australian painting at the Whitechapel Gallery, in the company of Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Russell Drysdale (a painting was immediately purchased by the Tate Gallery, making Whiteley the youngest artist to be purchased by the gallery) and in several international competitions. His first personal exhibition took place in 1962, at the Matthiesen Gallery in London.
It was around this time that Whiteley began his famous ‘Bathroom’ series of paintings, inspired by his then wife, Wendy, exhibited at the Marlborough New London Gallery in 1964. This was followed by his ‘Christie’ series, based on the notorious ’10’Rillington Place’ murderer who gassed, strangled and raped his victims. His perversity shocked the English art world, but established Whiteley’s name.
He befriended Francis Bacon (who died earlier this year), calling him “a man of burning intelligence”. He said, “I once almost swapped my entire ‘Bathroom’ show for a single Bacon painting.” Bacon, however, once purchased one of Rembrandt’s self-portraits from Whiteley. But not for long. “He studied it for three weeks and then said I failed and got rid of it.” This did not deter Whiteley from painting many portraits of Bacon.
In 1967 Whiteley won a Harkness Fellowship, which took him to New York, where he occupied the penthouse of the Chelsea Hotel and met inspirational figures such as Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. This led to his protest series, “The American Dream”.
In 1969, he returned to Australia as a superstar: a status he maintained show after show, sale after sale. His exhibits included a series of crucifixion paintings inspired by his best friend, sculptor Joel Ellenberg, who was dying of cancer; a series on Van Gogh in 1983; and in 1990, ‘Regard de Côté’, a series of drawings and paintings produced in an explosion of activity in Paris: one work for each of the 60 days he spent there. Additionally, Whiteley sculpted and photographed.
Along with his talent was his notoriety. He made no attempt to hide his drug addiction or his attempts at rehabilitation. “Being high on alcohol, or stoned or half-drunk, has been a big part of the way I’ve worked since I was 17,” he said in 1990. “Most of my heroes were drug addicts – Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Van Gogh – I’m part of this sick club. I don’t have the natural balance that others have to stop me. I have to mature and learn to keep a check on it, otherwise it will kill me .
In the same interview, Whiteley described his last exhibition as “coffee and Perrier pictures – there’s no way I got them stoned or drunk”.
Brett Whiteley’s prominent public image tended to obscure his true artistic gifts, according to an old friend, Daniel Thomas. “Most people were more aware of him than of his art; of his appearance as an artist,” he said yesterday.
Mr Thomas, a former director of the State Art Galleries of NSW and South Australia, had known Whiteley since the mid-1960s. He says he was unquestionably a great artist. “Even his paintings done in London in the 60s were beautiful, lyrical and made him look on. What made his art different was the sweep line, the long one; reflective forms, a touch of Orientalism — those semi-abstract landscapes with S-shaped riverbeds and weeping willows. He was not the only one to combine the East and the West, but it is one of the peculiarities of his art.
Anne Purves, director of Australia’s galleries in Sydney and Melbourne, which have exhibited Mr Whiteley’s work since 1966, described him as “a remarkable friend and man, a genius with extraordinary vision. He brought an original point of view on art. He had a global way of looking at things; he saw the rounded corners and gave you a broader view of the world,” she said.
“There is great responsibility, danger and cost that comes with having great talent, and you have to be very strong to deal with it. He used language as he used paint and pencil; he was an original person, not just as an artist.
National Gallery of Victoria director James Mollison said Mr Whiteley was “a person who always sought to make you feel good in his company. Rather than inflicting his worries on you, he was much more inclined to ask you to share his pleasures, joys and happiness.
Mr Mollison first met Mr Whiteley in the 1960s when the artist returned from London. “Then he was one of Australia’s wonder kids who brought back with him our first notice of the swinging 60s. He was always an extravagant dresser and tried to live life to the fullest, and asked you to do that. too.
Brett Whiteley will be remembered not only as an Australian artist, but also as an artist from Sydney. Daniel Thomas remembered his harbor paintings, with their iridescent blues, as being among his best works.
Perhaps the best tribute to Brett Whiteley came from Lloyd Rees, who once wrote to him: “I look upon you, Brett, as a beacon that will reveal hitherto unknown aspects of Australian creativity in years to come. Go forth, my dear warrior, and take with you my love and deep thanks for what you have already given us.