Much has been written about Brett Whiteley, one of Australia’s most acclaimed and prolific modern 20th century Artists. Whiteley once wrote about his art, Art is the recognition of the attempt, the degree of care and love brought to the game of defining time, and the terror of nothing, with the right shapes – the right amount of irony and opposites, the collective victory of choice by one individual at one moment.
Born in Sydney, in 1939 he attended Scotch College Bathurst from 1948 to 1956. From 1956 to 1959 he worked at the Lintas Agency and sporadically studied at the Julian Ashton Art School. In 1959, at the age of 19, he was awarded an Italian Travelling Scholarship, first living in Rome and then Florence with his then girlfriend and muse Wendy Julius. In 1960 they moved to London. He exhibited extensively in group exhibitions from 1960 to 1962 in London, Paris, Germany, California, Amsterdam and Berlin.
In 1961 Whiteley was awarded a grant under the Dyason Bequest from the Art Gallery of NSW which allowed him to stay in London. In the same year he was invited to hang three works for a show Survey of Recent Australian Painting at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. He was also awarded, in the same year, a special Commonwealth Arts Advisory Board Scholarship, which helped him stay in Europe. Whilst in Paris he was awarded the International Prix of the 2nd Biennale, Paris des Jeunes Peintres et Sculpteurs.
Whiteley married Wendy Julius in 1962. In the same year he led his first solo show at Matthiesen Gallery, Bond Street, London where he exhibited his first abstraction works. In 1963 he participated in British Art in the sixties at the Whitechapel Gallery in collaboration and simultaneously with the Tate Gallery London and also had his first solo exhibition in Sydney at the Rudy Komon Gallery.
In 1964 he participated in The New Generation 1964 show at Whitechapel Gallery with a group of young upcoming British artists. This exhibition marked an upsurgeance in the visual arts of British painters. He won an international drawing prize in Darmstadt Germany for Bather and Heater from his Bathroom Series and a Perth Festival Art Prize in Australia. 1965 saw his Christie and Zoo series exhibited at the Marlborough Gallery in London.
Throughout the 60’s he and Wendy travelled and lived in London, Sydney. Majorca, Tangier, New York and Fiji, these places heavily influenced his art. In December 1965 they returned to Sydney with their daughter Arkie and spent the summer at Whale Beach returning to London via Calcutta in mid-1966.
In October 1967 Whiteley held another solo exhibition at Marlborough New London Gallery showcasing works from his recent travels to India. The year also saw him awarded with the Harkness Foundation Scholarship, which afforded him 2 years study in New York, USA where the family lived at the Chelsea Hotel. In 1969 after 5 months in Fiji the family returned to Australia to live in Lavender Bay, Sydney, where he painted Sydney Harbour from Lavender Bay. The pattern of Brett Whiteley’s life is clearly shown in his drawing and painting its scintillating brilliance, its ecstasy and its foreboding.
Throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s he received huge acclaim: he continued to travel throughout the US and Asia exhibiting constantly, his output was prolific. IN 1976 he won the coveted Archibald Prize and Sulman Prize in the same year. In 1978 he won all three major Australian art prizes, the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes. In 1991 he was awarded an Order of Australia.
Edmond Capon, Former Director of Art Gallery of New South Wales described him as having an extraordinary and intensely charismatic energy. It was an energy that endowed him with a consuming and quicksilver curiosity. Like two of his heroes, Amedeo Modigliani and Frances Bacon, the person can never be separated from the art; the creator and the created are synonymous and for Whiteley, art was as much an essential of life as life was an essential art.
In 1989 he painted his Paris series Regard de Cote, and from this series comes 15 Great Dog Pisses of Paris. This series was originally exhibited in 1990 at the Art Gallery of NSW and subsequently after his death at the Australian Galleries. The last studio Whiteley had was a run-down T-shirt factory warehouse in Surry Hills which he bought in 1985. Following his split with Wendy in 1987, he lived and worked there until his death in 1992. Despite his success he struggled with drugs, alcohol and personal trauma. He died at 53.
After his death and following his wishes to create a museum, Wendy and Arkie helped to establish The Brett Whiteley Studio as a public exhibition venue and museum. It opened to the public in February 1995 and comes under the umbrella of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Wendy Whiteley maintains a critical and active role in the Studio and its activities. Brett Whiteley’s work is represented not only at the studio but in all the major public State and Territory Galleries in Australia and many international galleries including the Tate Gallery London and the Museum of Modern Art New York
Reference: Biography compiled by Wendy Whiteley and Melissa Lock, Digital Art Directory and thanks to Art Nomad