- Brett Whiteley
- Also known as
primary name: Whiteley, Brett
- individual; painter/draughtsman; sculptor/medallist; printmaker; Australian; Male
- Life dates
- Text from Stephen Coppel, 'Out of Australia: Prints and Drawings from Sidney Nolan to Rover Thomas', with a contribution by Wally Caruana on Aboriginal prints, BMP, 2011.
Brett Whiteley was born in Sydney into a comfortable middle-class family; his parents set up a business making outdoor patio furniture for the North Shore lifestyle. In retaliation to his mother's decision to leave the family for England he walked out of boarding school in his final year without matriculating. At seventeen he met Wendy Julius, then fifteen years old, with whom his life was entwined as muse, model, lover and wife for thirty-two years until their divorce in 1989. While working for an advertising agency, he attended occasional life drawing classes at the Sydney art schools but was essentially self-taught as a painter. After winning the coveted Italian Government Travelling Art Scholarship, he left for Europe in 1960. He studied Piero della Francesca and Duccio in Italy and then established himself in London where he quickly gained attention as a dazzling young talent. Bryan Robertson, director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery, included three of his abstractions in his landmark exhibition, 'Recent Australian Painting', in 1961; when his 'Untitled red painting', 1960, was purchased from this show Whiteley became the youngest contemporary artist to have had work bought by the Tate.
In 1962 he had his first solo exhibition at the Matthiesen Gallery, London, which also included his first two screenprints (2009,7077.1) published by Ganymed Original Editions. Despite early success as an abstract painter, Whiteley felt himself at a crossroads and determined to break free by turning to a figurative mode. His intimate 'Bathroom' series of his wife Wendy, whom he had married in 1962, were shown at the Marlborough New London Gallery in 1964; they demonstrated his powers as a draughtsman and his celebration of explicit sensuality in the female form. This was followed by his sensational series of the notorious sex murderer John Christie and his victims which was shown with his 'London Zoo' series at Marlborough in 1965. The polarity between the lyrical euphoria of the 'Bathroom' series and the violent distortion of the Christie series became a presiding theme in Whiteley's work. After five years away Whiteley returned to Sydney in 1965 but came back to England the following year, travelled to Tangier and then left for New York after winning a Harkness Scholarship in 1967. For two years he lived in the penthouse of the Chelsea Hotel where he produced his monumental eighteen-panel work, 'The American Dream', 1969, which encapsulated the nightmare of racial turbulence and anti-Vietnam protests of the period, compounded by his deepening addiction to drugs. He fled to Fiji in search of a Pacific haven but after five months he was forced to leave on a drugs charge and returned home to Sydney.
With his family he settled in Lavender Bay overlooking Sydney Harbour which was to inspire some of his most lyrical paintings. He became Sydney's pre-eminent painter: in 1976 he won Australia's most prestigious art prizes, the Archibald for portraiture and the Sulman for genre, the following year the Wynne prize for landscape, and in 1978 he won all three, the first time any artist had achieved this. Alcohol and heroin addiction however continued to plague him. In 1992, at the age of 53, he died from a heroin overdose in a motel room on the New South Wales coast. After his death his Sydney studio at Surry Hills was purchased by the state government and opened as a studio museum and life class room in 1995.
- Chris Deutscher, 'Brett Whiteley: The Graphics 1961-1992', Melbourne: Deutscher Fine Art, 1995, with Whiteley's 1982 essay on his printmaking; Sandra McGrath, 'Brett Whiteley', (1979) Sydney: Bay Books, revised edn 1988, reprinted 1992 (monograph); Barry Pearce, 'Brett Whiteley: Art and Life', with contributions by Bryan Robertson and Wendy Whiteley, exh. cat., Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1995.
For a detailed chronology, see the Brett Whiteley Studio website www.brettwhiteley.org