Whiteley's The nude exhibition on now
Whiteley's 67 works delve into his explorations of a prime historical subject, the nude.
If genius is the atheist’s word for God… then attempt to visualize the great nude would be the highest point of creation, for perfection is impossible, and no distortion can be extreme enough. Brett Whiteley, 1981
For Whiteley the human form was inextricably linked to life and by extension to his art. The deep primal urge of sexuality and sensuality felt by Whiteley would manifest itself in a diverse range of media and art practice. The title and its terms – The nude: erotic, sensual and sacred – are not mutually exclusive but are expressed to highlight the layers of meaning which can be understood within the subject of the nude.
In the early sixties Whiteley shifted away from the abstractions which had informed his art and for which he had gained great critical acknowledgement. The next phase of his career provided a catalyst subject which he would constantly return to – the nude. His first investigation was through his new bride, Wendy, whom he married in London in 1962. The result was the bathroom series, inspired in part by an evening spent at the artist William Scott’s studio where a young Whiteley, then 22, saw a reproduction of Pierre Bonnard’s painting Woman in bath (1925); the original is held in the Tate. From 1963 to 1964 Whiteley would sensitively draw and paint Wendy in various shifting poses in the bath. These intimate works were a celebration of love, both erotic and sensual, in form and subject.
Whiteley stated in the catalogue for the group exhibition New Generation: 1964 at the Whitechapel Gallery: all the paintings I have made in the last four years have been concerned one way or another with sex and the desire to record sensual behaviour.
In a later interview conducted in 1987 with Phillip Adams, when asked about the interplay between artist and model, Whiteley replied candidly: My early drawings were pathetic. I really struggled with drawing. I didn’t find my draughtsmanship until 1963. It was Wendy in the bath; it wasn’t until seeing the relaxation and the sensuality of a love affair that I could really learn to draw. Before it had an abruptness.
In this exhibition the nude is seen in intimate studies rarely exhibited, in tender paintings rendered with Whiteley`s addiction to the curve and also in his tactile, elongated nude sculptures titled enigmatically Her (1975-80).
In his representations of the erotic and sexual act Whiteley conveyed his deep desire to express the most intimate of moments between lovers, primarily inspired by Wendy, his muse. These works are frank and explicit, beautifully drawn in brush and ink, pencil and collage. It should be noted that this extraordinary ability to draw, his draughtsmanship prowess in realist, expressive and exaggerated forms, was something which Whiteley worked at with dedication. His numerous sketchbooks are a testament to his work ethic and conscious efforts to distill and refine his line, shape, form and composition in a variety of media. Here we are given record to Whiteley`s ideas and thoughts on the nude and are provided a wonderful insight into the artist’s mind and method.
Whiteley wrote about this theme in his irreverent way for an exhibition of nudes in 1981 and in the accompanying catalogue: most men, and certainly all artists, even if many never get around to actually painting it, carry in their heads the great nude. The Venus, the Bethsheba, the Bather, Diana, even the great centrefold, he carries all his life the idealization of his glands, carries it like some little uncut gem in his mind, waiting there to be given form.
Filtering down through civilization is the urge to show this glimpse of beauty, where invention and skin become one, and the history of art marries the whole history of one’s sex. Mistress, mother, lover, whore, obtainable –unobtainable, it is the wonder of a perfect distortion.