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Brett Whiteley Alchemy 1972-73 © Wendy Whiteley

Focus works

Click the link to view the work in the Art Gallery of NSW collection, including an image and more information.

Alchemy 1972-73

Whiteley’s most ambitious attempt at portraiture is the 18-panelled work titled Alchemy 1972–73. Exploring dualities – love and hate, life and death, order and chaos, security and rebellion, potential and opportunities lived and lost – it is a fascinating journey into addiction, the perceptions of identity, and the celebration of human experiences as well as the fears. It is, in Whiteley`s words, the 'transformation of self’.

Whiteley was endeavoring to understand his journey from birth to child to man to artist and how this world has left its impression upon him. The cultural impact of war in Vietnam, the Indigenous debate for recognition, Whitlam in China, the music of Bob Dylan, the writings of William Blake, Rimbaud and Baudelaire, the art of Bacon, Van Gogh, Picasso and Hieronymus Bosch – all left their mark and are referenced here. Whiteley embarks on a surrealist path juxtaposing images and worlds which collide and surprise.

  • What is the definition of 'alchemy’? How has Whiteley represented its meaning visually? Think about why he considered this painting to be a 'transformation of self’. How does this impact on the meaning of the work?
  • Whiteley uses 2D and 3D elements, found objects, cut-out areas, collage, drawing and painting in this work. What is the impact of using multiple materials and techniques? Examine how Whiteley combines these elements to make a complete and flowing composition.

Self portrait in the studio 1976

This self-portrait was created in the downstairs studio at Whiteley’s home in Lavender Bay, Sydney. Wendy Whiteley says of it: ‘In a sense Lavender Bay was Brett’s return to paradise and yet that was a really dark period because we started destroying it by being locked into a chemical paradise which had its moments in hell. The big self-portrait looking at himself in the mirror is extraordinarily honest … He makes no attempt to hide the fact that he is really somewhere else, and that it is not a particularly happy place, though of course the painting itself is very beautiful and is generally read as a sumptuous interior… He was trying to silently say, “Stay away, this is not what it may seem. Look at this beautiful house and wonderful pictures and things…” There was another side. That’s the duality of life – and that`s where Brett`s pictures moved away from Matisse`s.’

Wendy is referencing their drug addiction to heroin in her statement. This held them captive for many years and Brett would go on to investigate its impact in his incredibly powerful and honest portrait Art, life and the other thing 1978, which would also go on to win the Archibald Prize that year.

  • Find the artistic references in this painting. Collect examples of other work by these artists and other works in these styles. How do they compare to Whiteley’s interpretation? Why do artists appropriate? Discuss this within a post-modern context.
  • What is Whiteley trying to tell us about himself in this self-portrait? What is important to him? How does he push the definition of portraiture in this work? In your opinion do you think it was a good choice as the winner of the Archibald Prize in 1976? Debate this in class.

Art, life and the other thing 1978

In this work we have Whiteley portraying three selves. We have a small-scale photograph of the artist; the mischievous gaze is not directed toward us, this is how he physically looks. This panel deals with the life in the title, the external self. The largest panel reveals the artist and his influences. Whiteley has painted a self-portrait in which he holds William Dobell`s famous and controversial Archibald-winning portrait of the artist Joshua Smith from 1943. At the edge of the drawing appears the names of many artists – Rembrandt, Soutine and Giacometti, among others – whom he greatly admired. This panel deals with art from the title, the creative self. The third panel reveals the other thing – the addicted self, the weakness (perhaps the animal?) within all of us with which we battle daily to live civilised lives. This addicted self Whiteley admits to is brutally honest – the heroin addiction which would remain with him throughout his years from the mid 1970s until his tragic and untimely death in 1992. The hand offers a syringe, the animal is in anguish, the animal with Whiteley`s real hair are one – it is his anguish, the tears and pain, the struggle to constantly defeat the negativity, the mediocrity, this self-destruction. Battles were won and lost, however in the end, Whiteley was overcome by this force. 'I was trying to describe the force, the temptation of addiction… I painted it to make me quit dope – I wanted something to look at that was so horrific it would constantly remind me.’

  • How has Whiteley questioned the meaning of portraiture in this work? Examine the effect of a multi-panelled portrait and how it sends multiple meanings to the audience. In your opinion, is this work more successful than a single-panelled work? Discuss
  • Respond to the images Whiteley presents in this work. Think about the personal, historical and psychological references in each panel. How does he use literal and symbolic visual triggers? Consider his use of scale, framing, found objects, photography, cut-outs and collage in your argument. How does the title of the work complement its meaning?

My relationship between screenprinting and Regents Park Zoo: title page 1965

  • How has Whiteley challenged traditional printmaking techniques in this work? In what way has he been influenced by the art styles of the time? Research art practices of the 1960s and discuss how this image is a good example of contemporary trends.
  • Create an artwork using text and images. How do these elements complement each other in the composition? Think about arrangement and how this also adds meaning.

Shankar 1966

  • Develop a series of drawings that explore emotion, movement and sounds, using Whiteley’s approach to the sitar-playing Shankar as inspiration.
  • Experiment with ink and charcoal. What challenges and opportunities do they offer? What is the effect of combining these materials in your work? Do they complement each other? Discuss

Self portrait after three bottles of wine 1971

  • Why has Whiteley treated the figure in this way? What does the artist want the viewer to see? Describe the use of line and how this adds to meaning.
  • Create a line drawing with a pencil, a tonal drawing with charcoal and a loose ink drawing with a brush – all depicting the same subject. Compare your finished drawings. What were some of the positive and negatives of each approach? Is there one you prefer, and why?

Head studies c1971

  • Among these head studies are portraits of Francis Bacon, Robert Helpmann, Richard Neville, Arthur Rimbaud and Joel Elenberg. Find photographs of these people and compare them to Whiteley’s drawing. Are there things a drawing can show that a photograph cannot? Discuss.
  • Create head studies of students in your class. Think about how you can capture the personality of each student through the use of line, scale and facial expression. Consider using brush and ink as in this Whiteley work. How does your work compare to others in the class?

Portrait of Joel Elenberg 1980

  • Joel Elenberg was an artist and great friend of Whiteley and the subject of many of his drawings and paintings. Create a portrait of a close friend in a similar way. Think carefully about how you want to portray them. What are their interests, likes and dislikes? Select the environment and the objects that surround them to add further meaning to your portrayal.
  • Research the body of work based on Elenberg in Whiteley’s oeuvre. Discuss how these works form a legacy of both the sitter and the artist. Can artworks be as powerful as a written biography? Discuss.