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Art, life and the other thing is the controversial self-portrait that won artist Brett Whiteley the Archibald Prize in 1978. In this six-part series, acclaimed arts presenter Fenella Kernebone explores identity, addiction, legacy, feminism, place and the creative process, using seminal works from Whiteley’s oeuvre as conversational springboards with contemporary Australian artists, curators and academics.

To view the artworks mentioned in the titles go to agnsw.art/bwspodcast.

Enjoy all six episodes now. You can also subscribe to the Art Gallery of New South Wales podcast Art, life and the other thing wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple , SpotifyGoogle Podcasts and OmnyStudio.

Art, life and the other thing is the controversial self-portrait that won artist Brett Whiteley the Archibald Prize in 1978. In this six-part series, acclaimed arts presenter Fenella Kernebone explores identity, addiction, legacy, feminism, place and the creative process, using seminal works from Whiteley’s oeuvre as conversational springboards with contemporary Australian artists, curators and academics.

To view the artworks mentioned in the titles go to agnsw.art/bwspodcast.

(electric guitar strumming chords in background) 

Anne Ryan: Occasionally an artist or a picture will come along that really strikes a chord with how people feel about a place. 

Fenella Kernebone: Who was Brett Whiteley? Considered to be one of Australia’s most original artists, known for his unique paintings capturing iconic landscapes such as Sydney Harbour. 

Anne Ryan: The lyricism of it, the poetry of it, is the sense of evoking the feeling of what it is to see and to experience this place and this subject. 

Fenella Kernebone: He was known for his confident style and abstract sensibilities as well as paintings about his own inner demons. 

Wendy Whiteley: Painting can have that dark side effect. But with heroin, it was a struggle, you know, and a complete moral dilemma. 

Fenella Kernebone: In this podcast, we’re exploring the universe of Brett Whiteley: the man, his art and his legacy. 

Anne Ryan: A lot of his work really was about trying to work out where he fitted in. 

Wendy Whiteley: Life was always intense for him, he had set himself very high goals. He loathed the feeling of failure in himself.  

Fenella Kernebone: And I’ll be talking with some of Australia’s most celebrated contemporary artists to find out what Brett has meant to them and their own careers. 

Abdul Abdullah: There's also that dangerous legacy of this is what an Australian artist is, this sort of tortured genius and this is what you have to be to be an artist, which I think is pretty archaic. 

Fenella Kernebone: I’m Fenella Kernebone and this is ‘Art, life and the other thing’. Subscribe now wherever you get your podcasts. 

The title of this first episode refers to an unfinished painting found in Brett Whiteley’s studio after his death. The monumental work now hangs in the artist’s preserved studio in Surry Hills, Sydney. Fenella Kernebone discusses the artist and his studio with guests: curators Anne Ryan and Barry Pearce; Wendy Whiteley; artists Louise Zhang, Deborah Kelly and David Eastwood.

To view the artworks mentioned in the titles go to agnsw.art/bwspodcast.

Fenella Kernebone: A quick heads-up: in this series we talk about drug use, mental health issues and there’s a bit of swearing.  

This is Art, life and the other thing, a podcast about Brett Whiteley, the themes surrounding his work and the impression he continues to have on the contemporary art world. 

I’m Fenella Kernebone. And I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which this podcast was made – the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. 

In each episode we will dive into one of Brett Whiteley’s artworks – from a painting as iconic as The balcony 2 of Sydney Harbour, to his unfinished painting Interior, Lavender Bay. 

We’ll look at the impact Brett Whiteley has had on the art world over the past 60 years and talk to contemporary artists about his work, and how his work and style may have influenced their own career. 

Coming up in the series, we’ll talk about the self-portrait, and why artists are so drawn to this genre. 

Anne Ryan: For Brett Whiteley, a lot of his work really was about trying to work out where he fitted in. And I think self-portraiture is an expression of that curiosity in his own mind. 

Fenella Kernebone: …iconic artworks and what gives a painting that status? 

Nicole Kelly: Good painting floods me with emotion that’s hard to pinpoint, really. Like it’s somewhere between love and pain, really. I can’t describe why. 

Fenella Kernebone: …pieces from the past and how they stack up when we view them through a contemporary lens.  

Deborah Kelly: So the female nude is allowable in a certain way, but never actually shown with all her human anatomy. It’s funny isn’t it, it’s a censored view, even though it’s also ubiquitous. 

Fenella Kernebone: … and the mental state of the artist and how that impacts on their creativity. 

Wendy Whiteley: But he could go into a space where he just switched off; he was so friendly a minute ago and then suddenly bang, you know. Life was always intense for him ��� he loathed the feeling of failure in himself. 

Fenella Kernebone: But first: in this episode we’re going to look at an unfinished painting that was found in storage in the Brett Whiteley Studio after his death. 

Preserving an artist’s studio gives an incomplete piece like this one somewhere to be displayed, and it feels right to see it hanging, to give visitors a sense of the artist and his way of working. But why do we preserve these types of spaces? And what does it reveal about the artist themselves? 

So I’m heading to the studio now, walking along a narrow street in Surry Hills, it’s a suburb in Sydney’s inner city. On one side of the road, all these terrace houses sit closely together. And then on the other side there’s a long wall, there’s no windows just one big wooden door.  

So here we are, this is it, the door to Brett Whiteley’s studio, the place where one of the country’s most celebrated artists lived and worked for seven years until his death in 1992. Behind these walls are some of his most famous pieces of art. To be honest, some of Australia’s most famous pieces of art. 

(door hinges creak) 

Unknown voice: Welcome to the Brett Whiteley Studio. Have you been here before at all? 

Fenella Kernebone: So who was Brett Whiteley? Many think of him as Australia’s original celebrity artist, celebrated both for his talent and his wild lifestyle. But to understand Whiteley and his fame, we need to know where he came from.   

Brett’s artistic journey began as soon as he was old enough to hold a pencil. And that artistic instinct led to his first big break, as the winner of a scholarship to travel overseas to immerse himself in the dynamic European art scene.  

It didn’t take long for Brett to break through and in 1961, at the age of just 22, he became the youngest painter ever to have his work acquired by the most prestigious gallery in the United Kingdom: the Tate Gallery.  

For the next decade Brett travelled from London to New York, rising in stature and recognition within the art world, before finally returning home in 1969. And it was here in Sydney that he cemented his reputation as one of the great modern artists.  

He won the Archibald portrait prize – Australia’s prestigious portrait award – in 1976 and then in 1978 he went on to win not only the Archibald for a second time, but he also claimed the hat-trick: he won the Sulman and the Wynne Prizes too. 

When we think of Brett Whiteley today, ‘troubled genius’ comes to mind. But he was more than that. He was also extremely hard-working and dedicated to making art. You really get a sense of this when you step inside his studio. It almost feels like you’re entering the inner workings of his mind.  

Barry Pearce, the former curator of Australian art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, recalls the space as often being pretty chaotic. 

Barry Pearce: ... and he had paintings everywhere and paints, very untidy. You know, it wasn’t organised like it became later. 

Fenella Kernebone: And here’s Wendy Whiteley, Brett’s former wife and the subject of many of his paintings, talking about the area in 1995, when the Studio first opened to the public. 

Wendy Whiteley: Surry Hills itself has changed a lot. When the studio first opened, which was during the same time that Brett’s retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Studio as a cohesive entity was happening, the premier at the time entered Raper Street with a kind of terrified look on his face, surrounded by guards because I think they thought Surry Hills was so dangerous and so down at heel at the time. Then he walked in through those doors and you could see he was transformed by the experience.  

Fenella Kernebone: When he moved in, Brett renovated the space, transforming the downstairs into an art gallery. Here’s Barry Pearce again reflecting on what Brett saw in the space. 

Barry Pearce: He was imagining how he was going to use the space, you know, this was going to be the kitchen, he was going to have a bedroom out the back there, the studio was there looking out over the balcony. And the main thing he said that the reason he liked this space, because he could imagine he could have everything. He could have a working environment where he could have peace and quiet if you wanted to, or he could have mad parties if he wanted to do, with plenty of people. Or he could use the bottom as a sort of a mini gallery, like a museum, for his own work. 

Fenella Kernebone: Brett used the downstairs area as a rehearsal space for his artworks. 

Barry Pearce: I think he just wanted his own private view of how the work, the paintings were going to work together in preparation for an exhibition. But it would give him a chance to shuffle the pictures around and hang them on the wall with nice lighting … prepping himself, like rehearsing, very theatrical if you think about it, you know, this was his rehearsal space, or downstairs I’m talking about, not up here so much, as living up here. 

(Footsteps on stairs) 

Fenella Kernebone: Upstairs is more cosy, that’s where the bedroom and the kitchen are. There’s also a space with a black leather couch and postcards and photographs on the wall. This is where Brett lived, where he rested and, yes, sometimes partied. It’s where he felt most at home. Here’s Wendy again. 

Wendy Whiteley: The living room, well, the living room hasn’t changed that much and it’s almost the same photographs up on the back of the door and above the desk and the little collection of, uh, CDs and things, the music, that hasn’t changed that much. 

The floor when Brett was first there, he had this – it was pretty horrible actually – kind of pale apricot-coloured carpet all over it. Just completely worn by people walking up and down on it when we opened the thing. And so eventually we took it up and discovered it had a very beautiful, old floor from ... the back part of the studio is actually a very old building, the brick part. I think it must have been a kind of hayloft up there. 

Fenella Kernebone: Up there is his studio. There’s tins of paint, glass jars holding brushes, an easel set up and ready to go. Carefully scattered around are Brett’s things that have been collected over the years, including birds eggs, magazines, postcards. 

Anne Ryan: We’re here on a mezzanine level where the room is almost as if he would have used it himself. So there are artists’ materials on the floor. The floor is lined with wood, which is covered with spatters and paint marks. There’s a rolled up carpet in the corner. A lot of artists’ studios that I’ve visited have these daggy old carpets and they’re there to keep you warm. So it’s an environment that feels very much as if the artists had left it not so long ago. 

Fenella Kernebone: This is Anne Ryan, curator of Australian art at the New South Wales Art Gallery. 

Anne Ryan: Of course it’s not as he would have left it. It’s dusted, it’s tidy. Even though the materials are all over the floor, his books are on a bookcase by the wall. There are inscriptions that he wrote on the wall and postcards and images of artworks and other objects that he collected around himself as stimuli. It’s a curated vision of what an artist studio is like. And some artist studios are super organised and neat and tidy and others are complete chaos. And this one feels sort of slightly in between, really. 

Fenella Kernebone: After Brett and Wendy separated, he moved into the studio full time and lived here until he died in 1992 at the age of 53.  

It was Wendy and Arkie, their daughter, who came up with the idea to turn Brett’s studio into a living museum. They wanted to both preserve his legacy and find a way to continue to showcase his work.  

The studio was purchased by the state government, and later managed by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Here, Brett’s work is exhibited along with an annual exhibition of young artists nominated as finalists for the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship.   

Here’s Wendy. 

Wendy Whiteley: The downstairs show and, you know, the kind of exhibition space – which is all the whole thing, the whole thing is a unit as far as I see it, one thing relates to the other – the thing is that it was kind of almost ready made when Brett died for the government to actually take it on as an idea. It was because it was kind of there and existed almost as it is. I mean, we changed the exhibitions and we’ve had to organise things for the public to be able to use the space, but it’s very much like it was when Brett was there because he actually made those inner shells from an old t-shirt factory and turned it into a very beautiful white space. And it’s got its store rooms, it’s got toilets for the public, et cetera. But it feels intimate and enclosed for people. So it’s very distinct from going into a big museum. Even if you’re going to see one artist’s work, you walk into the home as well as the artist’s working space. And I think that’s what makes the big difference and why people really love it as a space and really liked to see a run of an artist’s work that much. 

Fenella Kernebone: Recently, the Studio celebrated an important anniversary. It’s been 25 years since the Studio’s solid timber door opened to the public. And as Wendy says, the Studio itself hasn’t changed much. 

Wendy Whiteley: The paints and the actual working materials are pretty well as they were, but it’s 25, 30 years ago, when it gets to be that stage occasionally they have to be dusted. The books and things were more or less like Brett had them, the stuff on the walls, it’s the same. What does change from time to time are the works that are actually hung on the wall, so that they actually become part of the exhibition. I don’t think there’s, I’ve never thought that there’s that much benefit to just leave a stack of old boards stacked up against the wall, taking up space. It’s just an opportunity to show a few more works to people at the time, but it retains hopefully the sense of that’s where Brett was working, using the same tools. The chair never changes. Can’t let anyone sit in it anymore. It’s become a kind of sacred icon that chair. It’d probably fall apart if anyone sat in it anyway. But this last exhibition, I think you can see it, there’s a chair from Lavender Bay that relates to a work that was made in Lavender Bay. And so I brought that into the Studio there. And things like that will probably end up in the Studio when I’m dead anyway. But the rest of the stuff is, yeah, fundamentally the same.  

People who come in there for the first time are amazed at it. They’re really excited by it, amazed by it. It’s not going to win everybody over, but it certainly has its place, I think, a very strong place. 

Fenella Kernebone: Yes, there’s an energy to this space. Whether you like Brett’s work or not, you do feel a certain pull to it here, surrounded by his works-in-progress, his brushes, his favourite books. Barry Pearce, curator, has a theory for why this is so. 

Barry Pearce: Good art energises you. Bad art sucks your energy. Why? Because you have to work out what’s wrong with it. And so you put your mental energy into working out, resolving the problems of art didn’t come off. He’s good enough to always give you energy. Every good work does that. We want to make it a pleasurable place where you can soak up something of the air that the artist inhabited here when he was at his creative best, you know. He made some wonderful works of art here. 

Fenella Kernebone: But why preserve an artist’s studio? And why this artist? It’s a question I put to Anne Ryan, from the Art Gallery of New South Wales. 

Anne Ryan: When you’re a curator you’re used to going to studios, but for the vast majority of people, it’s a mysterious kind of world. And so to be able to show a space like this that had an artist working in it and to give some sense of what that was like is a really rare thing. And it’s a very nice insight for the general public to start to access that world. When you go to an art museum, you see the final curated objects on the wall. If an artwork has got into a museum such as the Art Gallery of New South Wales, it’s  at the peak of that artist’s powers, it’s really the final product. But to get to that point, an artwork and an artist and an artist’s mind travels through a whole world. So having a studio like the Brett Whiteley Studio museum is a really nice way of beginning to tell that story. 

Fenella Kernebone: For me, visiting Brett’s studio is a wonderful way to spend an  afternoon. But for some contemporary artists, it’s so much more. It’s an education, sometimes even a kind of confirmation of the path they’re on. 

Louise Zhang: While looking at all of Brett Whiteley’s studio stuff right in front of me, I can say, yes, we’re a bit messy, a lot of visceral materials. I think the similarities would definitely be that, uh, the space is important to us. It’s a creative space and we kind of fully take on that space as a creative space.   

Fenella Kernebone: This is Louise Zhang, a Chinese Australian artist who works across painting, sculpture and installation. 

Louise Zhang: Space is everything to me. The importance of having a space that is detached from your home, because the idea of a home being a space to rest and then the studio as a space to work and that is a space to think, it’s yours, is very, very important to me. It’s also my safe space as well. So I know that it’s always there. But most importantly it’s a space that you can shape, so whether it’s like you’re working on multiple projects or one project or whatever, you’re sitting there and thinking, you’re surrounded by all your ideas. Everything that’s in your brain is vomited on the walls. 

Fenella Kernebone: What do you think about the idea of the artist’s studio becoming the museum? 

Louise Zhang: I’m conflicted, because – particularly as we stand in Brett Whiteley’s studio – I have flashbacks to when I was in grade seven and we had an excursion and we came here and we all had like a pad and some charcoal and we were just  drawing and sketching. And I was, you know, grade seven, loved art was being like, ‘Oh my God, this is the best thing ever, I want a place like this, I want stuff like this, I want paint on the floor, I want all this space.’ And so being heavily inspired as a kid, and also being told when I was doing these charcoal sketches here that there’s potential for me to become an artist. So for that, this space is like, it’s meaningful to me in that sense. As I get older though, the idea of, kind of, romanticising or preserving an artist’s space, I don’t know how I feel about that in a sense because artists’ spaces, they’re very personal. And having that opened up, to me, if it was my space, it doesn’t feel quite right. So I guess for educational purposes, because it has directly affected me, I’m all for it. But in a kind of commercial sense, I’m still figuring that part out, you know. 

  

Fenella Kernebone: Of course, it’s more complicated than just getting the balance of preservation and commercialisation right. We also need to consider which artistic spaces we deem important – which ones we choose to take care of. And question not only why we choose these ones. 

Louise Zhang: The only studios I’ve been able to visit that are preserved have often been white males’ as well. You know, those are kind of things where I have a bit of like, ‘Hey kids, artist studios aren’t this one definition. This is just how one person worked. This is just how Brett Whiteley worked. You can have your own studio, if you do end up becoming an artist or being working in the creative field that’s completely different. It could be just the back of your bedroom and you can still be an artist. You don’t need all this space or this like you can still do it.’ So yeah, I do think that the ones that we’ve preserved and the ones that are accessible, there are benefits in it and in the sense of inspiring us as kids. But it’s important to note that the majority of them are privileged white men who have their spaces preserved and it is not a dictation of what spaces should be like if you are to go into this field and not all spaces are like this. 

Fenella Kernebone: Maybe we need to start preserving your studio, Louise, what do you reckon? 

Louise Zhang: Oh, hey, if you want to give me all this. Yeah, totally, I’m up for it, absolutely. 

Fenella Kernebone: Walking through Brett’s studio, I can’t help but wonder what happens to the creative parts of our consciousness when we visit these preserved spaces? And through preserving them, do these spaces become more or less real?  

David Eastwood: My name is David Eastwood. I’m an artist and a lecturer at the University of New South Wales Art & Design. 

Fenella Kernebone: I met up with David at Brett’s studio. As a PhD student, he explored the ‘afterlife’ of artists’ studios preserved as museum spaces after their deaths.  

Of course, there are loads of artist studios like Brett’s around the world. Like [Pablo] Picasso, [Auguste] Rodin and [Eugène] Delacroix’s in Paris, Francis Bacon’s in Dublin. And because he’s researched quite a few of them, I put it to David: how real are these spaces? 

David Eastwood: Well, it’s certainly got an aura to it. I mean that’s, that’s one of the things about posthumously preserved artist studios that you’re meant to feel this sense of the artist’s presence. And the fact that this is a space that he decorated himself and artifacts of his are left behind, the postcards all over the walls and the little inscriptions and so forth, there is certainly a palpable presence being inhabited by an individual who’s no longer here, but his presence remains in what he’s left behind.   

Fenella Kernebone: Okay. So it doesn’t, it doesn’t feel to you like it’s something that was the past. It still feels very present. It feels contemporary. 

David Eastwood: I encounter these places with a slight sense of suspicion. Like I’m being hoodwinked by museum curators into feeling something or thinking something. And there is always an element of stage-managing that you’re aware of. 

Fenella Kernebone: It’s easy to come here and to be charmed by the scattering of Brett’s objects. But what about the role a space like this has in preserving the artist’s work? 

 
David Eastwood: With Whiteley, what we can see and the unfinished painting that’s currently on show at the Whiteley studio shows us is with the unfinished works, you can see more of an insight into the process in which works were made and decisions are left exposed. For example, charcoal drawings that may have been filled in later and things being overpainted but not fully resolved. So in various artists’ studios, the unfinished work is an important aspect of revealing something about the artist’s process. But there’s also, it creates this emotional connection for some people because when they walk into the studio and see an unfinished work, it contributes to that feeling that the artist has just left and could come back at any moment. And that’s an observation that a lot of people make when they walk into posthumously preserved artist studios. There’s a sense of keeping their memory alive, like they’re just around the corner and could return. 

  

Fenella Kernebone: One painting that has this effect in particular is titled Interior, Lavender Bay, (unfinished)’. It hangs on the back wall of Brett’s studio, near his bedroom. Looking at it here, standing amongst other visitors to the gallery, it sort of feels like Brett could come back any minute, pick up his brush and keep going. So, what do visitors to the gallery think of this piece? 
 
 

Aiko from Japan: Maybe if we go there, we go just museum, we couldn’t feel this feeling. I feel like he was definitely here. His spirit is still here. 

  

Dave from London: So I can see there, I assume this is a nude model here on the bottom right … and this kind of slightly ghostly hand ... 

  

Older person from Australia: I don’t think that is unfinished because he wouldn’t have put his hand with the paintbrush if it was finished. That’s like, to me it’d be the last thing you’d put in there. 

  

Fenella Kernebone: If you’d like to see the piece online, go to agnsw.art/bwspodcast. 

In the meantime, here’s curator Anne Ryan describing it. 

  

Anne Ryan: It’s a picture of the artist at work. You can see his hand coming in at the bottom of the canvas, holding a brush. In the middle of the canvas, there is another picture. So he’s painting a painting within that painting. He’s really recreating his own environment. There are objects in the space where he’s showing a ceramic that he’s made with a bunch of flowers in it. He’s showing a scroll painting that he’s done of a willow and there’s a female nude in there. So he’s really recreating his studio. But of course it’s not a finished painting. It’s something that he hasn’t signed. It hasn’t gone out into the world. 

  

Fenella Kernebone: Anne explains that works like these are on display to give us an insight into Brett’s creative process – a glimpse into how he made decisions, the thinking behind how a work came together. 

  

Anne Ryan: Because of course every artist makes a painting differently. But for Brett, we can see some areas which are very, very deliberate and complete, such as the scroll painting on the left, and then these other areas such as the, the drawn-in form of a female nude sculpture, which feels almost there, but perhaps not, he’s still working out how he’s going to finally have it in the work. There are little bits of painting that are obscuring something underneath, so you can see where he’s changed his mind. But interestingly, of course, this unfinished painting is framed as if it were ready to go onto the wall of a gallery. So it’s a paradox. 

  

Fenella Kernebone: With Brett, behind every great painting is a great drawing. But were it not for this gallery we might not know it. So what’s a curator trying to show us by putting this painting on display? 

  

Anne Ryan: We all draw and some of the most interesting drawings in the world are made by small children. Drawing is a way where we can express what we’re thinking. It’s a way of trying to understand something, whether it’s understanding how something exists in space, whether it’s trying to recall something or create something out of nothing. Drawing is a very natural impulse that sometimes we repress until we get to the point we say, ‘I can’t draw’, but everyone starts off drawing.  

Brett Whiteley had a very great facility for drawing. His line is very lyrical. It feels very confident, so when you’re looking at a drawing by Brett, a good drawing by Brett, you get that sense of the speed in which it’s made, the confidence he has in getting down his idea. He’s trying to capture a moment or capture a form in space.  

Of course his drawing skill, part of it was innate, but part of it was the result of hard work and that’s the thing people may not understand about an artist like Brett Whiteley. We have this romantic idea that an artist springs forth fully formed as some kind of genius and certainly there’s a propensity there that pushes somebody to push that innate desire to create in a certain direction. But an artist who loves to draw will draw all the time and they will do it wherever they are. And Brett was one of those artists. And the thing that is lovely about his draughtsmanship and his drawing is that it often enters into all the other types of works he makes. So you’ll find drawing within paintings, you’ll find drawing within printmaking. You’ll even find that sense of the drawn line in a three- dimensional object, like a sculpture.  

So yes, he was one of the most talented draughtsman of his era. The thing I like about his drawing as you get the sense of enjoyment he got out of it and the sense of great excitement he got when he was making drawings. And when he does a good drawing, it’s fantastic. 

  

Fenella Kernebone: You say good, but what about bad? Like what is it when it’s bad? Is it bad? Is it possible? 

  

Anne Ryan: Art is subjective, but when you look at a lot of art, you start to recognise art that feels authentic and real. It’s a really hard thing to explain, but sometimes you just know if something has that power that brings you to another place. It’s not merely about skill. It’s not merely about being able to make your drawings look like something in the real world. It’s more about what that drawing can evoke, that sense of something.  

This unfinished painting that we’re looking at has a drawn form at the bottom of a female nude and you can see the heft of her form. You can see the weight of her hips and her flesh lying on the floor. You can see how with her arm that she’s leaning on her right arm, he’s changed the movement of it. You can get the sense of her shifting around on the floor, her weight.  

That drawing tells you a lot more than just the fact that he’s drawing a naked female in the studio. It’s actually telling you something about the feeling of that form and the emotions that it evokes. And for some people, you know, Brett Whiteley was very in tune with his sexuality and he gets a great deal of enjoyment out of drawing the female nude because of what it suggests sexually. But also there’s a great tradition in Western art of painting the nude, of drawing the nude, to try and understand form. And there’s nothing more fascinating than a human body in space and how it moves and how it holds together and how it is in the world. And so there’s all these different layers in that, just looking at this drawing here in front of us today. 

  

Fenella Kernebone: To me, this is why we preserve an artist’s studio. Sure, I can go to the Art Gallery of New South Wales and get lost staring into the deep blue of Brett Whiteley’s Sydney Harbour paintings. But it’s not until you visit his studio like this, see the postcard that he’s pinned to his wall, the albums lined up, paint splattered on the floor and unfinished paintings that you start to really get an understanding of what makes a Brett Whiteley, a Brett Whiteley. 

Thank you to this episode’s guests: Anne Ryan, Louise Zhang, Wendy Whiteley, Barry Pearce, Deborah Kelly and David Eastwood.  

This podcast has been brought to you by the Brett Whiteley Studio in collaboration with the Art Gallery of New South Wales. You can visit Brett’s Studio Thursday to Sunday. Admission is free. 

  
My name’s Fenella Kernebone, thanks for joining me.  

 

 

The artwork that lends its name to the title of this episode, and this podcast series, is the infamous and brutally honest self-portrait that won Brett Whiteley the Archibald Prize in 1978. Fenella Kernebone discusses the work with curator Anne Ryan; Wendy Whiteley; artists Mitch Cairns, David Griggs and Natasha Walsh. 

To view the artworks mentioned in the titles go to agnsw.art/bwspodcast.

Fenella Kernebone: A quick heads-up: in this series we talk about drug use, mental health issues and there’s a bit of swearing.  

I’m Fenella Kernebone and this is Art, life and the other thing. I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which this podcast was made, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. 

This podcast is about Brett Whiteley and the big questions his work brings up and his influence on Australia’s arts landscape.  

In each episode, I sit down with some of Australia’s most exciting contemporary artists and curators at the Brett Whiteley Studio to talk about his work and how it’s impacted on their own careers. 

In this episode, we’re taking a look at ‘Art, life and the other thing’ ... a self-portrait that won Brett the Archibald in 1978. And hey, now you know how we came up with the name of this podcast! 

The Archibald is Australia’s most prestigious portrait prize. And although it’s turning 100 years old in 2021, Anne Ryan, curator of Australian art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, says it’s just as relevant today. 

Anne Ryan: It’s a prize that has – a bit like Brett Whiteley – moved beyond the art world. It’s something that’s very recognisable for Australians. It’s a prize that gets the most media attention at the Gallery every year. It gets the broadest audience every year. There’s something about the prize that Australians like, I think we like to look at ourselves and we like to think about who’s interesting. And it’s also a prize which can make or break an artist in Australia. Because if you win the Archibald Prize, your name becomes familiar to many people who would not have the ability to name another artist. Suddenly you’re thrust ahead. It’s a bit like winning Miss World: you have the tiara and the sash for the whole year, and Brett Whiteley won the prize twice. And that was a really big deal. 

  

Fenella Kernebone: A big feature of the Archibald every year is self-portraits. Artists like to joke that this is because portraying yourself is cheaper than paying someone else to sit for you – it’s practical, for sure – but there’s a lot more to it. 

Self-portraiture is a genre that many artists take on. It was certainly a massive part of Brett’s career. And the way he did it took self-representation to a whole new depth.  

 

The artwork ‘Art, life and the other thing’: he won the Archibald with this work – a triptych in fact – in 1978. Can you describe what was and is actually quite unique about this self-portrait that he did? 

Anne Ryan: So a triptych is a three-part artwork. And the triptych in this case is three different-shaped images. One of which is a photograph of Brett Whiteley, looking a bit quizzical, a bit silly. You sort of ... it’s got a sense of humour about it. The middle part of the triptych is a painting, a self-portrait of the artist holding – it’s quite postmodern, it’s very self-referential – he’s holding an image of a painting of an Archibald Prize-winner from the 1940s by an artist called William Dobell, who was quite possibly as famous in his day as Brett was when he painted this self-portrait.  

 

And the third part of the work is a screaming baboon. It’s a monkey with its mouth agape. It’s got tears streaming out of its face. It’s got pins in the hand almost Christ-like, if you picture a crucifixion, the nails through the hands of the Christ figure, which is in a way a self-portrait. It’s about his struggles with substance abuse and heroin, and it’s kind of like a primal scream, if you like.  

 

Fenella Kernebone: Brett’s entry was hugely controversial at the time. It divided critics, with some claiming it wasn’t a proper portrait. If you’d like to see the picture online, go to agnsw.art/bwspodcast.  

Anne Ryan: So visually it’s unconventional for a traditional portrait. In subject matter, it would have been challenging at that period because it’s talking about an issue that is controversial, you know. And it’s also an interesting insight into the value that Brett Whiteley placed on his forebears. It was a caricature. And so it’s become one of these pictures that’s been a kind of a beacon in the history of art in Australia about the struggle between modernism and modern art, and tradition.  

 

Fenella Kernebone: ‘Art, life and the other thing’ ultimately broke through, inspiring the next generation of artists to take self-portraiture even further. We’ll meet a few of those artists in just a bit, but for now I want to stay on Brett. Why was he so obsessed with painting himself?  

  

Anne Ryan: You find images of Brett Whiteley a lot in his work. And sometimes it’s a portrait of his face in that conventional manner. And sometimes you’ll just see his hand intruding at the bottom of a canvas or a sheet of paper holding a brush or a pencil. So he’s inserting himself into a picture. All of that is self-reflective and looking back at the self.  

I think, for Brett Whiteley, a lot of his work really was about trying to work out where he fitted in. He was very fascinated by the idea of genius and celebrity. And he was sort of a bit attracted to that, and so he was constantly kind of scratching away at that. What was creativity and where did it come from? And what is it that makes me tick? Why do I do what I do? Why am I who I am? And I think self-portraiture is an expression of that concern and interest and curiosity in his own mind that gave him an out, a way of trying to chip away at that. 

Fenella Kernebone: So where did all this leave Brett? What did it reveal about the man? The person who probably has the deepest insight into this is his former wife, Wendy Whiteley.  

  

Wendy Whiteley: This work is definitely a confessional. It did divide the critics, some of the critics that normally dislike Brett disliked this even more, made them dislike him even more. It took a lot out of Brett. It was also an attempt for himself to deal with his own addictions. He’s got cigarettes and a syringe in this thing, so he was fully aware of what was going on with himself. The howling baboon is something we’d actually seen in Ethiopia. And it’s a reference of course to the ‘monkey on my back’ of heroin addiction. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: For Brett, self-portraiture was a way of trying to figure out the darkest parts of himself. It also provided a safe place to play and experiment with new techniques. To this day, emerging artists are drawn to the form for similar reasons. Like Natasha Walsh. 

 

Natasha Walsh: I’m Natasha Walsh. I won the Brett Whiteley Scholarship in 2018. 

  

Fenella Kernebone: She’s also a three-time finalist in the Archibald Prize and the winner of the Kilgour Prize – another big portraiture competition in Australia. Being so accomplished, I wanted to get Natasha’s read on Brett’s work. 

Natasha Walsh: Conceptually, we can, you can engage with it. Like, it reminds me of that work with the three chairs where it’s like, this is a chair, this is a chair and this is a chair. and one’s the definition of a chair and one’s a photograph of a chair and one’s an actual chair. And this one’s almost like a self-portrait in three, where one is a representation of the artists in, I mean, maybe it’s, you know, this lion creature. It reminds me weirdly enough of [Francis] Bacon, but that’s probably because I went to a Bacon exhibition when I was in Paris.  

 

Fenella Kernebone: Francis Bacon, the English figurative painter. Like Brett, his portraits are famous for their raw, unsettling nature. The two men also knew each other and Brett idolised his work. 

Natasha Walsh: I mean, for me when you look at a Bacon [work] it’s like the tragedy of the human condition and the pain of that. Is it weird that it reminds me of like a creative rage almost? And then this one in the middle, there’s a little drawing that the artist is obviously holding of [William] Dobell. It looks like he’s actually in the process of drawing it, but it’s obviously Brett Whiteley and it’s reminding me a lot of [Pablo] Picasso with the breaking up of his form and you just see this eye that glares out at you. But I love how there’s just this eye that stares out at the viewer, looking back at you. Because he is self-aware of this whole construct, of this game that he’s invited you to play with him.  

And then the end with the panel on the right, with the photograph where he looks very, very playful in that photo, on that side, it’s very cheeky, very cheeky, kind of whimsical. And it’s like that’s a photograph. When you make an image, you realise how problematic that is because of how much distortion is created by that lens. If I were to represent you, the definition of you, the photograph of you and the actual you, there’s also the you that’s inside yourself that I have no access to, or I do, I use clues and stuff. I mean, the chair doesn’t say, ‘I’m not a chair’ or ‘I am a chair’, but with a self-portrait the subject has its own internal world, its own awareness. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: Natasha paints incredibly detailed translucent self-portraits, sometimes on canvas or on other materials like marble. She also etches her image into copper or wax and builds boxes with mirrors to play on the idea of self-reflection and the perception of self.  

 

Natasha Walsh: And I had collected this tiny little convex mirror that I think you usually attach to a window in a car, like a side, to give you a better range of vision.  

 

Fenella Kernebone: Natasha is referring to her self-portrait that won the Kilgour Prize in 2018 called Within the studio (self-portrait)

 

Natasha Walsh: It was about the size of a, um, smaller than a tennis ball, slightly larger than a ping pong ball. And I thought, well, it’s kind of interesting how it warps the space around me, each type of mirror, all the flaws in it and the faults in it affect the image, because I work from life, so everything is mediated. When you see yourself, it’s always mediated, you can never actually see yourself. It’s a mirror or a photograph. So the things through which you see yourself is, it’s got its own personality, its own voice. And so I’d been collecting all these weird reflective things. Just as an exercise, I thought I’ll paint the mirror.  

So I painted it on the marble and I thought it was an interesting work in that it actually was a self-portrait, because the copper work, I don’t see it really as, you know, they’re performances. Whereas this work was really a self-portrait of the time in that little space. Where this tiny, tiny corner warped around me and warped my perception and obviously affected mental health because how can it not when you’re working in such a small space with such a difficult subject, because honestly self-portraits are, you know, working with yourself as a medium to explore other themes, it’s really difficult because you, you can't escape yourself ever. You’re always, that’s always an aspect of the work and being vulnerable in that way. 

Fenella Kernebone: With artists like Natasha, the creation of a self-portrait definitely has a performance element to it. It’s a representation of the self, for sure, but it’s never static. 

Natasha Walsh: You’re constantly shifting. And so every time you engage with the mirror, your internal perception, which has already changed because you’re always reforming who you are in terms of your brain and what you see first and what you, your insecurities, et cetera, and also physically you are always changing. But with the copper work, it was, it was more also an exploration of ... they’re like little performances in the sense that it’s not about Natasha the artist, like that person. It’s not about me. That work is about, I might be feeling this way or reflecting on something. And then I create a narrative or a performance that will represent that as a way of talking about how we all experience it. Do you understand? So it’s not about me as a human being. It’s about looking at my own experience in an act of empathy,  to engage with a more universal human experience on different ideas and issues. And like in each painting, it revolves around one of those themes, which I was at that time interested in. So that’s what I mean when I say ‘performance’, because it’s, it’s that active, imaginative empathy through my own experience, but it’s not about me. That’s the interesting thing about portraiture.  

Everything that an artist does is ultimately, I mean, this has been said a lot, it’s ultimately a self-portrait. It’s also ultimately self-reflective. And so it’s kind of interesting because with a self-portrait, it’s honest about that. It’s honest about everything that I do, everyone that I paint, it’s ultimately going to be my own perception of them, my own interests, my own sensibility. 

  

Fenella Kernebone: Another Sydney artist who’s been an Archibald finalist – including a few self-portraits – is David Griggs.  

  

Although David’s self-portraits are very different in style to Brett’s, they are often steeped in darkness and grapple with similar themes: struggles with mental health and how this impacts an artist’s identity. Given this, I wanted to ask David what he thinks of Brett’s self-portrait ‘Art, life and the other thing’.  

This is the portrait that won the Archibald, the baboon, sort of the triplicate nature of it as well. So what do you see when you look at that picture, David? 

David Griggs: I think what always blows me away with his work is say the perspective of like a thumb coming to the foreground in front of a face or say the baboon’s mouth, or it’s like, you, you’re in that depth, he’s pushed the contour of everything and he’s, you know, tweaked it all and bent everything. But at the same time, the perspective of things are completely in the right place. So for him to say abstracted or go sort of mental with it, he can’t do that without that skill, that knowledge. I mean, you can see that he’s so, like, confident. I mean, even when things are out of proportion, it’s out of proportionally intentional.  

So he obviously was pushing, you know, he was obviously trying to create – I don’t think ‘controversy’ is the right word – he was definitely just pushing the way to communicate through painting, which, you know, is what we all do. And maybe he just had that little, extra oomph of like trying to be successful, but at the same time, sort of sticking it to the man, you know, sort of thing. It’s funny though, because when I think about, because I'm also trying to push painting and push and push and every time I think about the Archibald, I try to think about breaking up the panels or doing something that’s this or that. And, you know, but in a way, like, Brett already did that with that piece. 

Fenella Kernebone: There’s a few comparisons that can be drawn between Brett and David’s work. But one that really stands out is how much their mental state, their inner turmoil, is so centred in their self-portraits. 

David Griggs: I started getting quite severe bouts of depression, but when it’s new to you and you don’t understand it, I mean, it is like completely encompassing, you cannot function. You know, so I was very lucky that it happened to me in say my hometown, because I could get good help and you know, and then you come to this window and then weirdly over a very slow time and a lot of hard work, you almost get your life back. And then you’re like, wow, I want to paint about this, but I don’t want it to be say morbid, because in a way you do grow and you do learn a lot about yourself, but to do that, you have to pretty much go through hell. And I think with that painting, I was like, oh, well, let’s just spell it out in the title. 

Fenella Kernebone: Talking about mental health in the art world and beyond has historically been stigmatised. But David has smashed that stigma more than anyone. Let’s take his Archibald entry in 2009, ‘Zoloft nation’, which is all about the prescription drugs he relies on to help him with depression. 

 

In the painting, David has painted himself wearing a red-and-white-striped shirt with a smiley face emoji holding a severed hand, while skulls, zombies and skeletons dance in the background, painted in bold, bright colours. 

David Griggs: And it’s sort of just my way of saying this is an epidemic and this is what I’ve been through. And the Archibald for me was a perfect platform to have a dialogue about this. But at the same time, it was completely scary and confronting for me to, in a way, tell the whole of the Australian art world. Plus, you know, a lot of public that ... Oh, you can look at this painting and you can think about mental health and you can think about this artist’s experience, and this and that. But what was really humbling from that experience was the painting became therapy. So you know, this whole notion of art’s therapy. But then when you’re an artist, how do you say you need art therapy? How do you, you know, it’s like you’re doing it. And I would get all these messages from, you know, the mother of a son that committed suicide or the girlfriend of ... you know, it was like all these things going on, where people would say, ‘Hey, you know, like I saw your painting.’ And then people start to just tell their stories. 

And it wasn’t about the painting as a painting. It was about what the painting sort of represented. And that was sort of beautiful. And then I realised I could not have had that type of reaction without say the Archibald as a catalyst for that. 

  

Fenella Kernebone: I mean, you’ve been in the Archibald, what is it, eight times? So why portraiture for you? 

David Griggs: Oh, because the prize money’s really good. No, to be honest, I mean, look, it’s lols. Yeah, because let’s be honest, it’s gonna save a lot of artists’ asses if they can win that, is going to change things drastically, even if it’s for a year or two years, it can really change your way of life. For me, there’s a few reasons why I always enter, you know, my grandmother was a painter and I, I sort of promised to her [in her] last few days on the earth that when I win, I would mention her in the speech, you know, ’cause she got so excited when I started getting hung, and this might sound corny, but I do have a weird obligation to Australian art slash Australian culture. Because I think with the Archibald, it’s been renowned that you paint celebrities. And I always found that the artists almost became secondary to the subject matter. I don’t know what Brett was thinking, but for me it was like, I started doing self-portraits and it wasn’t a narcissistic thing. It was like, let���s bring some power back to the artists for once. And I don’t always paint self-portraits cause there are other, you know, other people that I admire and want to paint. And I just felt like, oh, you know, I don’t really care about that TV presenter, you know? 

Fenella Kernebone: So where are you now? Are you in a good place? 

David Griggs: Yeah. I mean, I’m in a really good place. Yeah. Everything’s, everything’s good. I mean, I guess I’m just one of those people that always likes a good challenge. Thinking about the future. You’re thinking about it’s always a good, good place. Yeah.  

 

Fenella Kernebone: Another artist who has been somewhat influenced by Brett Whiteley is Mitch Cairns.  

Mitch Cairns: I make paintings, mostly. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: He won the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship in 2012 and, like Brett, he’s an Archibald winner.  

 

But it was a portrait of his partner rather than a self-portrait that scored him the top prize. So we’ll talk to Mitch more about that work in episode 5, but it’s self-portraiture that I want to talk to him about now. 

 

And we’re sitting down, we’re in the upstairs section of Brett Whiteley’s studio. Have you been here before? 

  

Mitch Cairns: I have many times as a high school student, those large totemic sculptures of Brett’s were definitely present and they were quite wild, sort of, a wild thing to see. They didn’t really, there wasn’t much out there like that at that age for me. 

Fenella Kernebone: We’re sitting up here and one of the reasons we’re sitting here is because over on your right is this painting, which ended up picking up the Archibald Prize in 1978. Can you tell me your thoughts about this painting? 

  

Mitch Cairns: It’s actually really unusual looking at it because, again, going back to what we were saying about having studied Brett as a young person, the fact that it was actually a real painting and a real room that we’re sitting in now and you have all of that stored up, we’ve got a bit of a sort of Rolodex of images in our brain, it pops up as I look at the painting. Tthere is a kind of quality of like, oh, that’s it. Yeah. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: Mitch Cairns is a figurative painter and his work is abstracted, which is something Brett deployed in many of his works as well. But Mitch’s paintings are full of bold, blocky colours and angular lines. They hint at the modernist painters like [Henri] Matisse, or advertising prints from the 1920s. So what is it that inspires him about Brett’s work? 

 

Mitch Cairns: Whiteley was, he was a fantastic draughtsman. And the thing that I’m most attracted to is his, the articulation of line in his work. And I, as someone who draws is pretty much focused on that aspect of drawing, it’s not really about pulling out a form or defining something other than ... I’m not looking for another dimension, really.  

Looking over your shoulder at a couple of drawings here and, like, there’s a framed drawing of his sculptures, which is very much a suite of working drawings full of sculptures. And there’s another one, which is a sort of an interior sleeping figure, which is far more sort of finished. And obviously he got lost in the act of drawing and really indulged. I’m not sure if I indulge that much in it. I really just need it to keep things rolling. 

Fenella Kernebone: You’ve said that portraits are really tough, like that they can cause burnout. And what is it that for you, you find such a challenge when it comes to painting a portrait? 

Mitch Cairns: Because I’m a very intuitive picture maker and my subjects move around a lot. Each portrait that I’ve painted – and I can probably count on one hand, the amount of portraits I’ve made – they’re a real investment in time and energy. And there’s a lot of drawing involved in them. It’s not just a painting of someone. It’s very much about wanting to make sure that you’re able to honour them in the right way. And there’s very much a sense of wanting to please them. Rightly or wrongly, you want to make sure that they felt safe throughout the process and you’re not misrepresenting them. The duty of care aspect is probably the heaviest burden, if that’s the right word. 

Fenella Kernebone: Of course, there are burdens that come with painting yourself, as well. And we can see that when we’re looking at Brett Whiteley’s work. So, why paint yourself? That urge for artists to scratch the surface and stare inwards, to try to understand what really is there. That seems to be a driving force for so many artists to delve into self-portraiture.  

I suppose many of us have our own ways of doing this: some write, some make music some artists draw themselves. And by doing so, artists like Brett allow us a rare peek inside their minds, their inner turmoil, things that they might struggle to say in words. Maybe that’s why so many of us are drawn to portraits. 

Thank you to this episode’s guests: Anne Ryan, Mitch Cairns, Wendy Whiteley, David Griggs and Natasha Walsh. This podcast has been brought to you by the Brett Whiteley Studio in collaboration with the Art Gallery of New South Wales. You can visit Brett Whiteley’s studio in Sydney from Thursday to Sunday, and admission is free. 

   

I’m Fenella Kernebone, thanks for joining me.  

 

This lesser-known artwork says a lot about Brett Whiteley and his inner struggles. Fenella Kernebone talks about artists and addiction with curator Anne Ryan; Wendy Whiteley; artists David Griggs and Natasha Walsh; and musician Steve Kilbey, lead singer of iconic Australian band The Church. 

To view the artworks mentioned in the titles go to agnsw.art/bwspodcast.

Fenella Kernebone: A quick heads-up: in this series we talk about drug use, mental health issues and there’s a bit of swearing.  

Speaker: Welcome to the Brett Whiteley Studio. Have you been here before at all?  

Fenella Kernebone: I’m Fenella Kernebone and this is Art, life and the other thing. I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which this podcast was made, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. 

Throughout this series I sit down with some of Australia’s most exciting contemporary artists and curators to talk about the artist Brett Whiteley, his work and the impact he has had on their careers. 

In each episode we focus on one of Brett’s artworks, looking at the story behind the work, the issues surrounding it and the impact it had on the Australian art landscape. Today we’re looking at one of his lesser-known artworks, though it is a piece that says a lot about the artist himself and his inner struggles.  

The Brett Whiteley Studio in Surry Hills [Sydney] is a converted old t-shirt factory with this mezzanine space upstairs. And this is where his studio is. When you enter, you see a stereo, a side table with trinkets, a few records. And then there’s this clock hanging in the centre of the wall. A lot of the time people don’t even notice it. It looks similar to a clock that you’d find hanging on anyone’s living room wall. But if you stop and take a closer look, you see that the clock has two faces and a gallery label just underneath. It’s then that you realise, this is no ordinary clock.  

 

Anne Ryan: This work is called The heroin clock. It’s from 1981.  

 

Fenella Kernebone: This is Anne Ryan, curator of Australian art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. 

 

Anne Ryan: It’s two clock faces, one of which is working and it’s showing the time as it is today. And the one on the right is similar but the hands are still, and the numbers have all become compressed at the top of the circle of the clock. So instead of the numbers one through to twelve being as we would expect to find them on a clock face, they’ve all kind of compressed together. And so it’s a sculpture and it’s a work about the compression of time that one experiences when one is under the influence of heroin. 

 

Fenella Kernebone:  To see the piece online, go to agnsw.art/bwspodcast  

 

Brett Whiteley used and was addicted to heroin for years. It’s a subject he confronts openly in many of his works, most famously in his Archibald Prize-winning self-portrait Art, life and the other thing, which featured a syringe attached onto the canvas.  

 

 Here’s Anne again, about the role addiction played in Brett’s life. 

 

Anne Ryan: I think some of us have addictive personalities and whether that’s about food or illicit drugs or sex or anything, I think some people have a propensity towards that. A lot of creative people do, as well. Brett Whiteley came of age at a time when illicit drugs were becoming more prevalent in the West. At a time before society’s reaction to that – whether that be legal or social or cultural – had evolved the way it is today. And a lot of creative people saw a way of changing their perception of the world, whether that be through alcohol or any other method as a way of gaining insight into something that might not be otherwise accessible. So people focused a great deal on that because it, you know, it is a sort of slightly scandalous, interesting thing about Brett Whiteley and his life. But I think he was from a long line of creative people who were seeking a truth and they were working out how to find that and how to get there. And that was one of the ways that he did. Of course, it ultimately led to his demise. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: Was he addicted to art? 

 

Anne Ryan: I think artists who are driven to create are probably addicted to art. There is a compulsion with a true artist. Whether they be a songwriter or a dancer, to do that thing because they need to do it. It’s something that gives them energy. It’s something that gives them solace. It’s their way of trying to push their questioning about being in the world. I have worked with many artists in different stages of their life and their career, and the ones who are still creating the really interesting work in their seventies and eighties and nineties are the ones who are still scratching away at that itch and doing it every day and getting in the studio and making the work. When you stop the struggle, that’s when you’ve stopped being interesting. And I think for an artist like Brett Whiteley, it was as essential as breathing. And I think for any true artist, they have to do what they do because for them it’s the reason that they get up in the morning and it’s the thing that presses them to create great work. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: Looking back it’s easy to speculate that perhaps Brett was using heroin to self-medicate, to slow down his frantic or even melancholy thoughts. But his former wife Wendy Whiteley says it’s more complicated than that. Here she is in a talk recorded live at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. 

 

Wendy Whiteley: He could go into a space where he just switched off. People would come to me and say, what did I do wrong? You know, he was so friendly a minute ago and then suddenly bang, you know. Life was always intense for him, he had set himself very high goals. He loathed the feeling of failure in himself, in particular. He set himself up against some pretty amazing other artists in all forms, but mostly painting. And that’s what he wanted to achieve.  

And when he didn’t, he got very depressed and very dark.  

 

And then of course, you know – I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know – the drug addiction wasn’t helping. It seemed to for a while and the kind of sense of being able to be still for a while and feel relaxed, really one was comatose, but it felt like being relaxed at the time, until you become addicted to it. And then it becomes its own problem. You know, all drugs, all things that you love can have that, in a way, the attachment to anything, to a car, a house, a painting can have that dark side effect. But with heroin, it was a struggle and a complete moral dilemma. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: When we talk about Brett’s drug addiction, it is important to remember that this was in the 1980s. The scene and culture around drug taking was very different to what it is today. 

 

Wendy Whiteley: In Australia it didn’t exist in the middle classes. It was a pretty boozy culture, it still is in Australia. You know, the rite of passage was about booze, not particularly drugs in those days. If you were a bit about, you know, veering off to the left, you might smoke a bit of marijuana, but the use of opium, heroin, all these new drugs that have come since then, speed, everything, didn’t exist then.  

 

Fenella Kernebone: It was also a massive part of the alternative rock scene. And there were a lot of actors, musicians and, yes, artists, who were caught up in it. To help us understand this period of time, I invited Australian rock icon Steve Kilbey to the Brett Whiteley Studio. He’s part of the iconic band The Church. But today you’re just as likely to find him painting.  

 

Brett and Steve share more than painting in common: both had early success in their careers as artists, both were addicted to heroin, and both had studios in Surry Hills where they worked and partied. 

 

Steve Kilbey: We were both heroin addicts at the same time. And I really envied him because I thought how great it would be to be able to sell a painting and get the money and go and buy the smack. Whereas me, I got to wait for these periods ‘til my royalties come in. So I was envious of that. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: Though he admits to not being a huge fan of Brett’s work, I wanted to know what he thought about The heroin clock and about the impact the drug has had on his own creative life. 

 

Steve Kilbey: I’m not exactly sure what he’s sort of getting at there, but everything’s topsy turvy and fucked up, I guess, and time has no meaning. It’s more like a speedo [speedometer] than a clock, isn’t it? Um, yeah, I mean there are two things that, for me that make life stop and music isn’t one of them, but painting is, and when I’m painting, even though I’m not a very great painter or a good painter or anything, when I’m painting, I go into a non-verbal world where my mind stops talking and chattering. I’m a pastellist, so I’ve got a big box of pastels and I look at the painting and I look at my box of pastels and something says, ‘Grab that one!’  

 

But I sort of stop, after a while I stop, it’s, there’s no words. It’s just all going. Something in me is going, this needs to be bigger here and this needs to be darker and you need to get some black there. And I’m just sort of there in the colours and sort of in it. And in fact, when my children would come in and go, ‘Hey Dad!’, I go, ‘Oh!’ It’s sort of like being woken, woken out of a dream. And the other state that did that for me was drugs.  

 

Heroin and painting never coincided for me because by the time I’d started painting I’d stopped taking heroin. But with music I wanted to capture this sort of slowed down, sort of bassy, sort of detached feeling. And heroin, I went through a honeymoon period with it for about a year where it greatly enabled, I thought, and it gave me a sort of feeling to capture. But after a while, after about a year, I made music despite heroin, not because of it. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: Both Brett and Steve had talent. And it’s a talent that they shared with the world, a part of themselves they gave away in each song or painting. I wonder what that would have felt like? 

 

Steve Kilbey: You know, one night in 1986, me and my then girlfriend knocked out a song in three minutes and you know, if that, and you know, by various processes it got on an album, a record company got behind it. And now 32 years later everybody walks around talking about this song and, you know, I do it here and I do it there and all of that, but I’m sort of, I’m sort of detached from it and I’m like, I don’t know. I don’t know what to do with it. I wish I could take it all in and cheer myself up. You know, when I wake up on a cold morning and I’ve got to go to the dentist’s and I’m lonely and scared and I wish I could go, ‘Hey, I wrote this iconic song’, and go ‘Right, I’m ready to take on the world’.  

And obviously it didn’t do it for Brett, either. There’s a real parallel, despite all his success and being an icon and all the money he had and having this house and all the other stuff, he wasn’t feeling the love either. I used to think when I was a kid, I thought, boy, if I was famous and playing the guitar and girls were screaming, I’d be the happiest guy in the world. And I found out that that was not the case. It didn’t sort of, it didn’t cure all of my problems at all. And nor did heroin and nor did being famous. And obviously it didn’t work for Brett either. So I guess I, I guess there is a parallel between his painting and his paintings and my songs. Um, it doesn’t sort of, it’s hard to, it’s hard to squeeze the juice out of them and drink it and go ‘Wow!’. You just always, you always sort of detach from the stuff you create yourself, ‘cause you know how you’ve done it so it doesn’t really impress you.  

 

Fenella Kernebone: The existential search for meaning, a seeking of answers, enlightenment, whatever it is that Brett might have been trying to do through his art. None of that is new, but the relief that he sought – in painting, alcohol, sex and drugs –  today that might be viewed in a different light. 

 

We can understand how this might work through the art of David Griggs, who we also spoke with in the previous episode. His Archibald entry in 2009, called ‘Zoloft nation’, focused on the prescription drugs he relies on to help him with depression. While his work is dark, it’s also full of colour, humour and fun. Here he is talking about the influence Brett’s life and legacy has had on his own career. 

 

David Griggs: You know even as a younger artist, trying to sort of grasp what that means… his lifestyle became more interesting than the work at the end, which is sad. I mean this sounds really weird, but in a way it was because of the way he passed it was like, it made you sort of re-question like what you were doing. You know, so like, ‘Oh geez, like, I gotta be careful’ or I shouldn’t … you don’t want to go out like Whiteley. That’s sort of interesting that I think is subconsciously there for artists, particularly painters, for sure. Because there is that feeling where you get so distraught in what you’re doing and the complexity of the struggle is completely difficult, you know. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: Yeah. It’s an addiction. It’s a compulsion to continue to create, but also to create you’ve been doing it under the influence in some ways to help you along or to propel you to a certain point, you know, suddenly to not have it anymore. For some artists, they talk about, well, ‘I’m going to lose the ability’ or not, I don’t know. That’s what, I mean, Whiteley used to talk about that, I think. 

 

David Griggs: Yeah. I mean, I’ve been trying to lay off cigarettes for years and years, but it’s that thing where, you know, the studio I’m in at the moment, you can’t smoke in the studio. And it took me months to be able to actually paint without even having a cigarette. It was hard. It was really hard, you know? Yeah. Just not having that mental crutch for creativity, whatever it is. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: Can we have a look at ‘The heroin clock’ around the corner? It’s like real time versus mashed up time. Heroin time, addiction time, maybe it’s art time when you’re in the zone or something like that. 

 

David Griggs: Yeah, I get it. I get it. That’s why the numbers are crunched up at the right. Okay. I, yeah, that makes sense. And the ‘3’ is like where the ‘7’ would be? No, what the hell? No, the ‘7’ is where the ... Anyway, yeah, it is completely mashed up.  

 

Fenella Kernebone:  Yeah, the ‘3’ is where the ‘7’ should be. It’s all gone to dust. 

 

David Griggs: But it’s interesting that he, even though he mashed it up, he still used the clock as a literal sort of visual device instead of doing it as a painting. So that’s sort of interesting. He felt he could get that message across easier with that. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: In the previous episode, we talked to David about how hard he worked to climb his way out of a very debilitating bout of depression, eventually getting his life back on track. 

 

It’s a place that Brett was sadly not able to reach. Which perhaps explains the key difference between David’s Archibald entry with ‘Zoloft nation’ and Brett’s with ‘Art, life and the other thing’. While both are about the mental state of the artist, they tell different stories. 

 

David Griggs: You know and then you come through this window and then weirdly, over a very slow time and a lot of hard work you almost get your life back, you know? You have to pretty much go through hell. You know, which a lot of people that have this sort of ailment will understand. And I think with that painting, I was like, ‘Oh, well, let’s just spell it out in the title, you know: “Zoloft Nation”.’ And it’s sort of just my way of saying, ‘Oh, you can look at this painting and you can think about mental health and you can think about this artist experience, this and that’.  

But what was really humbling from that experience was the painting became therapy. Like you might even be breaking down and having the most horrible day, but if you can just like push through and just even do twenty minutes of painting, it can sort of trigger something innately in you that can, you know... And when you make those little breakthroughs in the hardest moments, you will always get better.  

 

Fenella Kernebone: So, does the process of creating art function as a form of therapy, or does the drive to create art that inspires and changes the world send people crazy? Or is it a bit of both? 

 

David Griggs: I mean, you know I think people talk about Brett as [if] it’s like a dance, you know, it’s this thing, this very poetic notion of the painter dancing with the brush. But for me it’s a bit more aggressive than that. I don’t know if I’d say I’m poetic at all, but it’s definitely a very physical, physically and mentally draining thing to do. I think unless you’ve really delved into painting as a thing, you can’t sort of grasp it, you know? 

If I see friends that are also painters and you can just sort of see it in them, they might feel run down or look run down. But then other days they’re uplifted and it’s got nothing to do with home life. It’s like, I know what’s going on in the studio just from looking at you, you know? And that is that torment that is that pleasure but it is also that daily traumatic experience of, yeah, the struggle, but— 

 

Fenella Kernebone: Just doing the work.  

 

David Griggs: —just doing the work. But you know, and I think people don’t get this, so for any people, anyone that’s say, dating an artist, just remember that their brain is on this 24 hours a day. I mean, yeah, you can cut off and maybe do whatever and distract from that train of thought, but you sort of can’t, you know? So just, yeah, it’d be a little— 

 

Fenella Kernebone: Be kind.  

 

David Griggs: —be kind.  

Fenella Kernebone: Is it an addiction?  

David Griggs: Oh yeah, completely. I mean, the longest I’ve had off painting, probably since I was 18, would have been about three months. And there’s a moment within that time – usually I won’t take more than three, four weeks ever – there’s something completely missing in, in your being, you know? And then you remember, ‘Oh, that’s right, I haven’t been painting, of course.’ You know, and then, but there is this nice thing when you have a gap of time that’s not too long, but not too short, where you start to miss it. And that’s the moment when it feels really, really nice to paint again. You know, ‘cause you’ve come to that threshold, so to speak, of not painting and you just need it. You just gotta do it.  

But you know, being in the zone stuff, sometimes it’ll just happen. You might, I mean, there’s times I’ll sit on my sofa and just be like, ‘What’s going on? I don’t know what to do.’ But you’ve got this show coming up and then you sort of push yourself to do something and then three hours later you forgot all about that feeling, you know? Or there’s other days you feel really good and ‘Yeah, I’m going to do this painting’, and then you’re like, ‘Oh.’ So you just don’t know when it’s going to happen. Yeah, it is. It’s really, you can’t gauge every day how, what’s going to unfold. Yeah. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: I don’t know about Brett, but it sounded like he struggled through to the very end. I’m just wondering if there’s a comment to be said that you might’ve already talked about it before, about what happens when you don’t go and get the help that you need?  

 

David Griggs: Well, you’re gonna crash. I mean, there’s just no doubt about it, you know, and I think maybe the, you know, the community he was around and the environment of the sort of nature of dealing with, you know, addiction or any sort of mental health problems during that time was probably a lot harder than it is now. So, yeah. But you know, I think people are also very good actors, you know, like he might’ve been really good at not letting people in as much as they thought they were getting let in. I mean, I don’t know, I’m just sort of trying to try to analyse it. He was obviously alone when he passed and that just sort of, yeah, in a way he was escaping, but at the same time he was hiding it, you know?  

 

Fenella Kernebone: Natasha Walsh is a portrait artist who explores emotions and inner turmoil through her work. She told us in the last episode how that work can at times have a detrimental effect on her own mental health. But she absolutely understands the compulsion to create, no matter what. 

 

I mean you work as an artist, this is your job, right? But what is it, what is the compulsion to create? Describe that for me. 

Natasha Walsh: It’s like if you were asked not to speak and you have to not say anything and not write, but you go around in the world and you’re experiencing everything, that feeling of, can you imagine? Like if I told you to spend a day, you’re not allowed to speak or write – that feeling, that’s like when I’m not doing anything. It’s almost like speaking isn’t enough.  

And, actually, it’s not great because I find that when you say something, people hold you to that they say this is what you meant. My interpretation of what you said is what you meant. Whereas if you communicate with senses, you, it has more nuance and what you say can constantly evolve and change. So it keeps to the authenticity of your response to things. Does that make sense? So that’s why I need to create, because if I don’t make work about what I’m seeing and experiencing, I feel like I’m being asked not to say anything and told not to say anything. And it doesn’t really matter if people don’t see it necessarily.  

Like, I don’t know, does it matter if someone doesn’t hear you, if you talk to yourself, you just need to do it. I mean it’s that eternal struggle that you kind of face, not just if you’re a painter, if you’re trying to create anything, I think we get addicted to that struggle, that anger, that struggle, passion, sometimes the creative jealousy, that fuels you to do things. You’re not going to achieve it, and that’s not necessarily the point, you know, if you don’t achieve it’s not that you failed, the point is the struggle and that’s the joy, you know what I mean? 

Fenella Kernebone: Do you think that Whiteley was addicted to his art? 

 

Natasha Walsh: I feel like all artists are too, you know, because it’s, well sometimes I wonder, like I can only say, to ask that question, to think about that question in regards to Whiteley’s work, I look at my own experience with regards to myself because if he’s addicted, then I’m also addicted. So I mean, I have actually consciously asked myself, is this an unhealthy addiction? Like, because it kind of follows, it seems to follow that, doesn’t it? That you, you can’t not do it. And when you’re doing it, you’re sometimes making yourself ill with it. But it’s definitely a constructive addiction. I don’t know, because sometimes I sometimes feel like the artist is their art. You are your work. So it’s like, how do you, how do you not be, how do you not be that?  

 

 

Fenella Kernebone:  Brett Whiteley was clearly dealing with inner demons. You can see that in much of his work, particularly his self-portraits where his face is often depicted as peering inwards, struggling to work through his deep fear of failure.  

And by all accounts, even before Brett was addicted to heroin, he was addicted to his art. As Wendy explained, he lived life with an intensity, full of big ambitions, leaving no room for failure.  

But can you untangle Brett Whiteley from his addictions? Many say genius and pain go hand in hand. Brett was – in many people’s opinion – a genius. Sadly, his demons persisted throughout his triumphs, resulting in the tragedy of his too early death. But his legacy lives on. 

 

Thank you to this episode’s guests: Anne Ryan, Wendy Whiteley, David Griggs, Natasha Walsh and Steve Kilbey. 

 

This podcast has been brought to you by the Brett Whiteley Studio in collaboration with the Art Gallery of New South Wales. You can visit Brett Whiteley’s studio in Sydney from Thursday through to Sunday. Admission is free. 

I’m Fenella Kernebone, thanks for joining me. 

This episode looks at Brett Whiteley’s iconic landscape painting The balcony 2 1975, it’s a work the artist painted at his home in Lavender Bay overlooking Sydney Harbour. Fenella Kernebone discusses this most recognisable of Whiteley’s works and the genre of landscape painting with curator Anne Ryan; Wendy Whiteley; artists Nicole Kelly, Blak Douglas and Abdul Abdullah. 

To view the artworks mentioned in the titles go to agnsw.art/bwspodcast.

Fenella Kernebone: A quick heads-up: in this series we talk about drug use, mental health issues and there’s a bit of swearing.  

Speaker: Welcome to the Brett Whiteley Studio. Have you been here before at all?  

Fenella Kernebone: I’m Fenella Kernebone and this is Art, life and the other thing. I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which this podcast was made, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. 

This podcast is about Brett Whiteley and the big questions his work brings up about the Australian arts landscape. In each episode I sit down with some of Australia’s most exciting contemporary artists and curators at the Brett Whiteley Studio, to talk about his work and how it’s impacted on their own careers. 

In this episode we’re looking at one of Brett Whiteley’s most recognisable paintings, The balcony 2. To see the piece online, go to agnsw.art/bwspodcast.   

This piece is part of a series Brett painted at his home in Lavender Bay in Sydney’s north, looking out at the view of Sydney’s harbour.   

 

Anne Ryan: It’s a very joyful picture. And I think this painting is about one of the slightly underrated but incredibly important things that drove Brett Whiteley’s art, and that was the love of beauty.  

 

Fenella Kernebone: Anne Ryan is curator of Australian art at the New South Wales Art Gallery. She says while we often expect art to be serious with meaningful and often political messages, it’s not always this way. Like with ‘The balcony 2’. 

 

Anne Ryan: Sometimes art can just be about what makes us happy and what is beautiful. It’s a very lyrical picture and by lyrical, I mean it has a great sense of ease in the way that the forms are painted. The forms are recognisable in this picture. We can see trees, boats, structures, the landforms, and we can see the shimmer of light on the blue water of Sydney Harbour. But also there’s a sense of abstraction about this picture as well, which I think is very appealing. So while we know what we’re looking at, and we know where we are with this picture, the lyricism of it, the poetry of it, is the sense of evoking the feeling of what it is to see, and to experience this place and this subject.  

 

Fenella Kernebone: ‘The balcony 2’ is considered by many to be one of Australia’s greatest artworks. But how does one painting gain such celebrity?  

  

Anne Ryan: Occasionally an artist or a picture will come along that really strikes a chord with how people feel about a place. If you think about the paintings of Fred Williams, for example, that sense of the scrubby dryness of the Australian bush, once you see that you sort of understand it and you wonder why no one ever did it before. And it’s the same with this picture by Brett Whiteley of Sydney Harbour, this lovely hedonistic, outdoorsy feeling of how we’d like Sydney to be, and the best face of Sydney. Obviously Sydney is not just the harbour. It’s not just beautiful boats, it’s not leisure, it’s not the beautiful, graceful arc of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, but it is something, and it is something that we treasure as being distinctively Sydney and distinctively ours. And so occasionally a painting such as this will come along that really does strike that chord and stays with us. 

  

Fenella Kernebone: Yeah, it makes you feel happy when you look at it. It’s a picture that I think of when I think of Brett Whiteley, this is the one that you’d come into the Art Gallery as a kid – when I was a kid at least, in the eighties – and this was the picture that was right there. And in the mezzanine on that foyer there. But then when you look at it, you’re right, you feel like you can just jump in there and have a swim. So what is it about this work that makes you, I don’t know, just makes you feel at home? 

  

Anne Ryan: You know, those dreams you have where you’re flying? This work can evoke that feeling for me, it feels like something that you want to be part of, and this painting makes you part of that. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: Brett Whiteley’s former wife, Wendy Whiteley, has her own ideas about why this painting achieved its status.  

 

Wendy Whiteley: This is a very well known, probably the best known of Brett’s harbour pictures. First of all, it’s got the balcony which we used to look out over across the top of the Morton Bay fig, which has now doubled in height. So it’s much more difficult, the view. It has the bird, which he used a lot, flying across it. It’s got a plum tree and in the left-hand lower corner it’s got the bridge. And then the introduction of this edge, the white edge, it’s very clear in this one. And that denotes the artist being on the inside of a building, looking out of a window frame, which is kind of a way of making both the interior exist in your mind and the outside, the view being the outside of the window frame, which is that white line that goes around the outside. So once again, it’s an attempt to do two kind of perspectives. The balcony has a three-dimensional thing, the boats are very flattened, the bridge has got a 3D thing; it’s that double distance that Brett uses, more often than not. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: The painting has been described as having a flat picture plane meaning there’s no depth of field and the objects don’t look in proportion to each other.  But Wendy says the way Brett applied the paint means there’s a depth to the colour, and hence a sense of depth to the water. 

Wendy Whiteley: Well, this is paint on canvas, of course. So when he paints on canvas the paint is very much thinner than, you know, it’s thinner, thinner layers. So you can see in the blue in this, which Brett became very well known for, the blue, this use of the blue. But it’s not a flat blue, you can see that there are dark shades coming through the blue itself. And because it’s on canvas, that’s very thin layers put on and then rubbed back with a rag so that the paint doesn’t get too thick. So it’s the opposite of somebody painting emotion with very thick paint. But it gives a kind of subtle colour to the water that it’s not just a big flat plane itself, it’s got depths and shadows and things going on. Even though, overall, it strikes you as being very blue. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: When we consider what makes an artwork recognisable, subject matter plays a big role. In this case, we can’t ignore the fact that ‘The balcony 2’ is a painting of a very famous landscape. But how does a now iconic painting fit in amongst other great landscape paintings? Here’s Anne Ryan again. 

 

Anne Ryan: Some of the most exciting and amazing landscape pictures, of course, are by Indigenous artists in Australia. As time has gone on and as we have had more experience of the Australian landscape, we see the multiplicities of Australian landscapes and places. For some artists, it was the outback, like Albert Namatjira, it was his Country up there at Hermannsburg. For Fred Williams, it was the dry scrubby land of regional Victoria or New South Wales. For Brett Whiteley, it was Sydney Harbour. And let’s face it, most of us live in the urban fringes of this continent. It’s the landscape that we actually live with. And in Sydney, we live with that big expanse of blue water. And so for him, he was claiming that bit of Australia for his own art in a way that artists before him and artists after him have claimed their own bit of Australia and their own landscape, within that big tradition of the Australian landscape in art. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: Claiming a patch of dirt and depicting their own landscapes is what many artists do: painting streetscapes, suburban houses, city lights, or the bush that borders their hometowns. One contemporary artist who subverts the traditional idea of the landscape is Abdul Abdullah.  

Abdul Abdullah: My name is Abdul Abdullah, I’m an artist originally from Perth but now I’m based and live in Sydney. I work mostly with painting, but across all sorts of different mediums, so sculpture and video and installation. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: Abdul is a five-time Archibald Prize finalist. He was also a finalist in the 2020 Sulman Prize and a finalist in the 2019 Wynne landscape prize. 

 

He was selected as a Wynne finalist with a work called ‘A terrible burden’. It’s a beautiful oil painting on linen of rolling green hills, moody clouds and an imposing mountain range in the background with the words ‘a terrible burden’ scrawled over the top in white. The work is a commentary on how white artists and colonists have claimed the Australian landscape as their own and not necessarily shared it fairly with the original custodians, and later migrant arrivals. 

Looking at a painting like ‘The balcony 2’ with Abdul, I wanted to know how it stacks up against his own views of Sydney. 

Abdul Abdullah: The way that the blue has been applied compared to the white marks over the top, and then the edge of the balcony, which is in the foreground, and then the bridge in the distance, those types of things are very iconically Sydney, I think. Iconically Sydney, especially for me coming from Perth and not really knowing Sydney. What I knew of Sydney before moving here was the Opera House and Circular Quay. Now living in Sydney, it’s a bit of a different experience; that particular view of Lavender Bay says something else, I guess, it’s a view from a particular part of Sydney that I’m less familiar with even now living in Sydney. So it’s again, another sort of strange relationship with that type of iconic imagery and what it represents and who it serves and whose vision it is in a 2020 context. 

Fenella Kernebone: Well, tell me a bit about that. Whose vision is it in a 2020 context? How do you perceive this painting today? 

Abdul Abdullah: I don’t want to sound too much like an arsehole, but it sounds for me ... When I look at that image now, it’s the view from a very wealthy person’s apartment of a very nice, expensive view that seems so distant from where I grew up and the people that I grew up with. So it’s foreign, I almost feel like a tourist in my own city, looking at that image. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: Of course, when Brett and Wendy moved into the flat in North Sydney, the area wasn’t what it is now. It was an affordable haven for artists back then, with world-famous views, of course.  

Do you think of it as an iconic landscape in Australia? 

 

Abdul Abdullah: Oh, it is in the fact that it’s so well known, like I’ve known this painting since like the very first paintings that I’ve seen, but I don’t know where it sits for me personally, in the idea of the iconic Australian landscape and even the phrase ‘iconic Australian landscape’ has always sat kind of funny with me, like, particularly from a colonial and a white Australian perspective, the idea of taking ownership or taking, claiming a space as somebody’s own. And I’m also very critical of the idea of genius, especially when it’s applied to an artist as a way to sort of justify some behaviours that are perhaps ungenerous or unkind. So it’s a relationship with paintings like this and a history of Australian painting that is often really quite uncomfortable. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: The way that we look at the landscape today, the way that you look at the landscape today – considering the 20-plus years of conversation and potential change that might have happened in this country – what is the different conversation, particularly for you, that you’re trying to get across, that may not appear in a painting like ‘The balcony 2’, in terms of the landscape? 

 

Abdul Abdullah: It’s a difficult one, in particular, with that painting to disconnect it from its value and being read as ‘this is a painting that’s really, really, really expensive’ and to remove that cost, you know that market value away from it and to remove the context of who Brett Whiteley was in the Australian imagination... If I was to look at that painting, I would go, ‘Oh, that’s a nice painting’, but that’s as far as that would go. For me, it represented an attitude of a generation of Australian artists that felt a certain sense of entitlement to the space they exist in and a certain sense of entitlement over the discourse, that, for me, excluded alternative, marginalised, black and brown voices in the way that they spoke. So this is part of an ongoing conversation and an ongoing conversation and discourse that’s developing in my own arguments. So I don’t have a clear and concise argument about it. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: Abdul was first introduced to Brett Whiteley’s artwork in high school. And this is still the way many Australians first come to learn of Brett’s work, helping to cement his legacy with the next generation. But just what is that legacy? And is it something we still need to know about, or is it time for a shift? 

 

Blak Douglas: Well, I can give you a crafty answer ...  

 

Fenella Kernebone: This is Adam Douglas Hill. 

Blak Douglas: My art moniker is Blak Douglas and I work out of Marrickville, originally hail from Dharug Country, Western Sydney.  

Look, we take our hats off to Brett for being pretty much a [Jean-Michel] Basquiat of Australian art. But the fundamental dilemma is that, why has no other artist come close to being a successive finalist in all three awards?  

Fenella Kernebone: Blak Douglas is a three-time Archibald finalist, a finalist in the Wynne landscape prize and has won the Kilgour portrait prize.  

 

Trained as a graphic designer, Blak Douglas’ paintings are strongly influenced by graphic design. They’re big and they’re bright. But if you look closely, you’ll see thick dabs of paint and the mark of the brush. And if you look even closer, you’ll see political commentary about social justice, the environment and the dispossession of Aboriginal land and culture. When it comes to a legacy like Brett Whiteley’s, Blak Douglas says it’s complicated. 

 

Blak Douglas: There are many dilemmas with his superstardom status. A: a male who got that status, so there really hasn’t been a female ... but if there has been a female come close to having the same status, I’m very happy to say that that’s probably Emily Kngwarreye. And these are moulds we need to break, for obvious reasons. Also, when are we going to see an Aboriginal artist celebrated to this extent, save for what I’ve just said of Emily? But it seems like Brett has succeeded in this superstardom, idyllic artistic lifestyle and it’s just been bottled and put on a shelf for museum purposes. I guess being able to visit this studio is a perfect example of that. So there needs to be more celebrated roughness around the edges in art. And there are obvious reasons why that hasn’t happened, but I’m really hoping that those constraints shrivel up and blow away really quickly. 

Fenella Kernebone: And there’s something about the era too, I mean this is the sixties – fifties, sixties and seventies – there was this time, it was male, it was white. This is how it could happen and perpetuate, and here we are today. You know, nobody gets celebrated in quite the same way necessarily today, so maybe there is a change or a shift? 

Blak Douglas: Well, I’ll tell you one example of why it’s unlikely to change in, let’s be generous and say, the next decade, and that’s because the conservatism of this place is either going to be disbanded or it’s going to worsen and that’s a tremendous impediment on art as we know, and we see that happening right now in the cuts to funding or whatever. Why Brett made it to where he did, it’s a pretty indicative template and that is you have to go outside of this place. And so he spent ten years abroad, as did Jeffrey Smart, as did John Olsen. You’ve got to go to where people are grown up and have a much more adult appreciation of your artistic efforts and that’s still the same today. And so that’s the advice I say to all the young people who are aspiring to pursue art, just save your bucks and get out of here as soon as you can, go and get the show on your CV in whatever international art precinct [overseas] and come back here and they’ll look at you a little bit more seriously. 

Fenella Kernebone: Making it in the arts – internationally – has long been associated with cities like London and New York, two places Brett was lucky enough to have lived as a young artist. And Blak Douglas is right: this would have had a big impact on him coming home and so easily asserting himself here in the Australian art world. But things have changed, so would it be the same today? 

But what is Australian identity to you today? Like, what is Australian identity to you today, but, in particular, how it’s represented through art, identity in Australian art. 

Blak Douglas: Australian identity today in art is as trepidatious as it was when I began painting and pretty much hasn’t changed. In the sense that for the most part on most institutions, major institutions, you’ll still hear a foreigner ask, ‘Why isn’t the First Nations artwork immediately in the foyer when you walk into the institution?’ And so sadly, I’d like to see that change and that’s what I’m advocating for. However, I know that I’m walking on a fine line whilst trying to negate the Archibald and the other prizes as well without rustling the feathers too much or soiling the collectible rug on the floor of the dining room. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: The acclaimed artist Vincent Namatjira recently became the first Indigenous Australian to win the Archibald Prize for his portrait of football icon Adam Goodes. It was a big moment – one that took 99 years.  

There are many takes on the Australian landscape: we’ve heard about a few of them in this episode. But Brett’s take on Sydney makes a very particular impression, and it’s undeniable – it’s that blue that is at the heart of this.  

 

Nicole Kelly: For me, I want to describe it in terms of colour and mark, really.  

 

Fenella Kernebone: This is Nicole Kelly, a painter. She won the coveted Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship when she was just 22. Of all the artists we’re speaking to in this episode, Nicole is the most traditional in terms of what we refer to as a landscape painter. So what does she think of Brett’s harbour paintings? 

 

Nicole Kelly: So this absolutely incredible blue, ultramarine, Prussian-y blue that floods the canvas, and I’m also drawn to this work for the really gestural white border, where you can see the hand of Whiteley. I’m really interested in that ‘cause that’s that embedding into space that I’m interested in my figures as well. So like then the white of the boats tie into that border and they’re kind of interlocked in the image. 

Fenella Kernebone: The way you see it is pretty different to how I, a mere mortal, might see it. So keep telling me about what you see; I’m seeing obvious stuff, probably.  

Nicole Kelly: Again, like I love this. I mean, I don’t even care what it is, but I think it might be a balcony, but my brain doesn’t care, but I love the line work that is kind of almost superimposed over these other marks with rich kind of texture, textural painting and what that does to space, how those marks and colour and materiality of paint work to make such a strong image. I don’t know. That’s, that’s my love. 

Fenella Kernebone: How does it make you feel? 

 

Nicole Kelly: Good painting floods me with emotion that’s hard to pinpoint really, like it’s somewhere between love and pain, really. I can’t describe why. But maybe it’s a longing to make really good paintings. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: Nicole’s own landscape paintings are lush and textural landscapes, thick with colour and emotion, providing a false sense of security to draw viewers in and then subtly redirect them. It’s this distorted expression of the landscape that exposes trauma and probes the flaws in our relationship to the environment and history. 

Fenella Kernebone: So you said that you’re grounded in landscape. That’s what we see. Why do you paint yourself into the landscape? 

Nicole Kelly: I feel like we have made such a significant impact, like humans and especially white humans have made such a kind of impact on this landscape. It’s hard to look at the landscape and not kind of think about our impact or think about our relationship to it. I feel a really strong connection with landscape. So I see my identity as part of that landscape as well. I guess I’m trying to make sense of all of these different aspects of human relationship to nature through my work. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: What makes a painting iconic? Does it come down to a feeling? Is it as simple as saying, ‘This is a good piece of art and everybody else thinks so too?’ Or is there more to it? Do artworks become iconic because of an artist’s place in society, the advantages that they may have?  

 

Well Brett was fortunate to live in a place that allowed him views of the harbour that many people in Sydney would rarely have had the chance to see in their daily life; it gave him the opportunity to capture a privileged view. 

 

And a landscape painting of somewhere like Sydney Harbour can have such different meanings depending on who is looking at it. It can simply be a beautiful image of a well-known place, but it can also be an image that projects classism, privilege, ownership.  

 

So can an artwork from the past remain as iconic in the present and the future? Will the iconic paintings of this time show images of fire-ravaged bushlands, demolished forests or empty cities? Only time will tell. 

 

Thank you to this episode’s guests: Nicole Kelly, Wendy Whiteley, Anne Ryan, Blak Douglas and Abdul Abdullah. 

 

This podcast has been brought to you by the Brett Whiteley Studio in collaboration with the Art Gallery of New South Wales. To visit Brett Whiteley’s studio you can check it out from Thursday to Sunday. Admission is free. 

I’m Fenella Kernebone, thanks for joining us.  

  

 

 

 

 

Brett Whiteley was inspired, like many artists, by the female form. How do we critique these artworks through a contemporary lens and their place in a long history of the female form being relegated to an object for the male gaze? Fenella Kernebone discusses these ideas with curator Anne Ryan; Wendy Whiteley; and artists Mitch Cairns and Deborah Kelly. 

To view the artworks mentioned in the titles go to agnsw.art/bwspodcast.

Fenella Kernebone: A quick heads-up: in this series we talk about drug use, mental health issues and there’s a bit of swearing.  

Speaker: Welcome to the Brett Whiteley Studio. Have you been here at all before?  

Fenella Kernebone: I’m Fenella Kernebone and this is Art, life and the other thing. I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which this podcast was made, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. 

Throughout this series I sit down with some of Australia’s most exciting contemporary artists and curators to talk about the artist, Brett Whiteley, his work, and the impact he’s had on their careers. 

In each episode we delve into one of Brett’s artworks, looking closely at the story behind that work, the issues surrounding it and the impact it has had on the Australian art landscape. In this episode we’re taking a look at Brett’s work through a contemporary lens. But to do that, we need to understand the backdrop against which Brett became an artist. 

Here’s Anne Ryan, curator of Australian art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. 

 

Anne Ryan: Brett Whiteley came of age in the 1960s. He really became prominent in the sixties. He was a young man who was very doted upon by his family. He was the kind of young boy that people recognised was going to do something with his life. That expectation was very conventional for boys, but perhaps not so much for their sisters. The opportunities that they got were slanted towards men just structurally within society. Male concerns, male ideas, male opinions on what was of value, certainly reign supreme in all aspects of society, but also in the art world. So, the big dealers in Australia and overseas were men. The artists that they pushed forward by and large were men. It was very difficult and that was the same throughout society. So, the art world was merely a microcosm of what was going on in the broader society. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: Like many artists throughout history, much of Brett Whiteley's work was inspired by the female body. You can see this going back in his most early landscape works, which were more abstract in style.  

Then in the 1960s, his style evolved and became more figurative as he became more and more preoccupied with the female form, largely inspired by his former wife Wendy Whiteley. He did hundreds of sketches of Wendy. One of his most celebrated works, the bathroom series, is a result of drawings he did of Wendy in the bathtub. 

 

From here, he went on to include female nudes in a number of his paintings, drawings and sculptures. Which brings us to the artworks we’re focusing on in this episode: ‘Sculptures of her’, a group of female nudes carved out of mangrove wood. 

 

To see the piece online, go to agnsw.art/bwspodcast.  

 

Anne Ryan: They were made from wood that Whiteley found along the shores of the Lane Cove River here in Sydney. And they are female nudes. They're very sinuous. They feel very much responding to the natural form of the wood. But they are also works that speak to a far longer tradition in Western art, but also further back looking at the female body, in particular, in space. They are differently sized, again, that's a response partly to the materials that he's using. And they have a beautiful sense of languorous movement in space. A couple of them have got their arms extended above the head and then their hands back on the head. There's the sense of the shift of weight in the form, the hip sticking out, the backside sticking out the head, the breasts, the spine. They're really quite beautiful, lyrical works and some of my favorite sculptures by Whiteley.  

I like them because of their organic quality. I like the feeling of the movement of the body and the weight of the body through the wood and the way that the wood has grown naturally. Nature has had just as much a hand in the creation of these sculptures as Brett Whiteley did, and I like that about it. I find that very elemental and it makes me think about ancient sculpture and ancient fertility objects and these objects that are fashioned by hand out of the creation of the earth and nature. I find them quite beautiful.  

 

Fenella Kernebone: Brett Whiteley’s appreciation of the female form is present throughout much of his work. And in this way, he’s not alone. 

 

Anne Ryan: The female nude in Western sculpture goes back to the Greeks and the Romans. And it's been a conventional subject in painting and drawing and sculpture for thousands of years. Of course, the nude originally started off in its ideal form as the male and transmogrified over the centuries into the female nude, particularly from the 19th century on. So Brett Whiteley is working within a tradition, a Western art tradition that looks at the female nude in particular as an important, valid subject for art.  

Of course, with our contemporary eye and since the great work of the feminist art historians in the 1970s and subsequent to that, we read it differently than it would have been read even in the times when these sculptures were made by Brett Whiteley. And you can't separate contemporary experience and contemporary readings from how we experience these works today.  

I think that Brett Whiteley, in choosing these subjects, is obviously speaking to his own interest in the female form, not only as a formal object in space and part of that tradition, but also through male sexuality. And he was certainly an artist that was very much of a generation where that was expressed. He came of age in the sixties when sexual liberation that, you know, people in the sixties thought they invented sex, of course. But it was certainly something that was becoming far more spoken about and public. Of course, now with our lens of the year 2020 looking back, we can also see all the problems that were inherent in that and all the power structures that were inherent in that at the time.  

 

Fenella Kernebone: Given where we are today, how our thinking and our politics have evolved, I wonder how Brett’s work sits for Anne today? 

Anne Ryan: Every artist is a product of their age. But the great thing about art, good art that manages to transcend the time in which it was made is that it continues to have a resonance, whether positive or negative, but it evokes some discussion and some feeling. And I think that the intentions of the artist are one thing, but good art is also subject to the subjective readings of those who view it. And so if I look at a 19th-century studio nude made in France in an atelier with men and women artists first coming together and first being allowed to draw the nude together – which only happened in the last 120 years – I'll read that in a different way now than they were reading it at the time. And so feminist theory, queer theory, all sorts of different ways of reading works of art have subsequently emerged. And that just adds to the richness of the body of work like this.  

 

Fenella Kernebone: Considering how our analysis of art has expanded, where does that leave us with Brett’s work today and how we look at it? Should we hold him up to a contemporary standard, or accept his works as part of an era? 

 

Anne Ryan: I think for contemporary feminists looking at Brett Whiteley’s work there are as many readings as there are the contemporary feminists, let's be honest. But I think looking at the way Whiteley chose his subjects, the way he chose to depict his subjects, the milieu in which he was prominent, the period in which he was prominent. Yes, of course there were problematic things for our contemporary eye. But at the same time, it doesn't mean that we can disregard these works.  

I think that's the... anything historical, we always tend to colour it with our own perception in our own position in the year 2020. I think a feminist reading of this work is not, it's not even overdue. It's been happening for a long time. I think that it's perfectly valid and perfectly interesting. And I don't think it detracts from the actual visual power of these sculptures as objects in space. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: So yes, you can look at Brett Whiteley’s work now, through a contemporary lens, but considering it through the context of the time it was made is also important. But does this mean we should avoid criticising Brett’s nude paintings of women in the same way we would a contemporary artist? 

 

Anne Ryan: I think when you look at historical artists, you have to be very careful not to transpose your contemporary understanding of the world on them too harshly. I think it's good to evolve. It's good to take on other perspectives, whether that be from a feminist perspective, a queer perspective, even understanding different cultures and races and all the different things that we're now, we talk about more honestly, even things like mental illness. Whereas it's really important to understand context for historical art and you can make moral judgements about it, but you have to be careful about that because to truly understand what an artist does and what motivates them, one has to have empathy and imagine their position and their upbringing and their milieu and the politics that was around them and the culture, everything impacts on it.  

So history is important and it's important to have that empathy and to place yourself in the past and try and understand all the forces that were in play at the time. Because we’re no better or worse than those people were. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: Motives, politics, culture: it’s all significant. History in particular. It shapes the way that we look at an artwork, like Brett’s nudes. And it also shapes the way artists today respond in their own work. 

 

So let’s now consider more contemporary representations of the human form, how things have evolved, and what impact this has retrospectively on Brett’s work. 

 

Deborah Kelly: I’m Deborah Kelly. I'm an artist. I'm from Melbourne actually, but I've lived in Sydney for 20 years. And you wanted me to introduce my work, which is of course a very curly question. I think most artists probably need to have a little lie down before they start answering. How long have you got? 

 

Fenella Kernebone: Deborah is a mixed media and performance artist. Her work, particularly her more recent work, explores the tension between the idealised body and the diverse body. Contesting the history of nudity in art has been a big part of her practice. 

 

Deborah Kelly: I mean, there are of course those ancient, little statues which are called Venuses that are found all over Europe. And they’re like 25 to 35,000 years old. They’re possibly trading things or religious things or just really recently, a feminist archeologist has proposed that maybe the reason they have no feet and no facial features is that because they are self-portraits by pregnant women, which is such an amazing thing to think about, I reckon, because of course mirrors hadn't been invented, so they don’t know what their faces are like and they’re so pregnant, they can’t see their feet. So I just love that idea. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: If we go back to early civilisation, the female body was a symbol for wellbeing and fertility. But for Deborah, when she’s contesting nudity in art, what she’s really contesting is nudity during the Renaissance period. Why? Because this is when the relationship between male painter and female model really started to change. 

 

Deborah Kelly: The first reclining nude was painted by Giorgione in like 1510 or something. But those 500 years, 500 and something years of those paintings, the oil paintings of especially the reclining nudes, they propose women as a sex class, they propose women as decor, and they insist upon a certain kind of passivity and receptivity, which mustn't of course be overly desiring because then you would tip over into being a slut. So they posit a certain kind of use for the female body, which obviously is our task to shatter.  

 

Fenella Kernebone: Much of Deborah’s work is in response to this: what many refer to as the male gaze. Which, in a nutshell, is a theory where women are represented in the media and arts in a sexualised, passive way that empowers men and objectifies women. 

 

Deborah’s work ‘LYING WOMEN’ [2016] is an animated collage where cut-out nudes from art history books dance and leap across the screen in a feminist critique of the male gaze.    

 

Deborah Kelly: ‘LYING WOMEN’, an entirely different kind of work that I made is a video which is in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. And it is a stop-motion animation that shows hundreds and hundreds of reclining nudes, cut from a very great many abandoned art history books.  

Partly I'm cutting the art history books in revenge because that’s the art history I was taught, it seemed that only European men could make art. When I studied at school and even at university there was nobody of colour and no women at all. And that was very formative, obviously. So I've spent a long time trying to add to that canon and also to destroy it, of course. So, that’s another one of the amazing things about art. It can be making something creative that also has a destructive intent, in a way. I mean, I intend to grapple with the archives and to genuinely fuck with them.  

 

Fenella Kernebone: Brett Whiteley is part of that archive. His drawings of women are all curves and flesh. Words like ‘erotic’, ‘sensual’ and ‘sacred’ are used in the titles. And yes, there’s plenty of reclining going on. So, in this way, has Deborah been motivated by Brett Whiteley? Let’s look at her [2014] series: ‘No human being is illegal (in all our glory)’. 

 

Deborah Kelly: ‘No human being is illegal (in all our glory)’ is now 21 portraits of naked people. In that work, nakedness stands for innocence in a way, but it also stands for the human being in the world versus the borders of geopolitics. So those naked human beings are obviously symbolic, but they’re also individuals. I guess that’s one of the great things about art: you can be thinking about a whole lot of different things simultaneously.  

So I guess part of the point of that work, the work did attempt to think about a lot of different things at once, borders as well as who is excluded in the regimes of exclusion.  

But it also sought to address the museum itself in terms of what kinds of bodies do we see represented? Slim, white bodies, almost exclusively. So ‘No human being is illegal’ also sought to open an aperture into the institution that would allow for a much more magnificent array of humanity to be seen and to be beloved.  

 

Fenella Kernebone: Galleries are full of female nudes. Imaginary ones or otherwise. We just accept them as part of the world of art. But here’s a question: are we as accepting of the male body? Deborah’s experience exhibiting her own work suggests that we might not be. 

 

Deborah Kelly: So the work went on to tour for four years—thankfully, because I didn’t have anywhere to put it—and when it was in Penrith, which is in the Bible belt, I believe, somebody or somebodies made a lot of complaints and then they went into the gallery, which is not under very strict invigilation, and then they scratched the penises of three of the works with keys, full depth scratches. Nobody was upset by the female nudes because they’re used to seeing naked ladies in galleries, I guess. But life-sized men, they were totally freaked out by it. So in the very end, before the work went into storage I had to take myself up to Noosa with big magnifying goggles and tiny little brushes and try to repair the penises, which is an extremely strange job, one of the weirdest things I've ever had to do as an artist. 

Fenella Kernebone: Here’s something that is not as well known. Wendy Whiteley, Brett’s former wife, was the one who in fact went to art college. Brett went too, but he dropped out early to take a job at an advertising agency. And yet, Wendy isn’t known for being an artist. She’s most famous for being the subject of so many of Brett’s paintings and drawings. So, how did that happen? Here’s Wendy to answer that question, talking about the role that she played in Brett’s artistic life. 

 

Wendy Whiteley: People kept saying to me, ‘Why did you give up your career for your husband?’ I never thought about it, I was having a ball, I was doing what I wanted to do. I didn’t have that kind of raw ambition that he had. I don’t know whether it’s masculine or feminine frankly anymore, but he had it in spades, he wasn’t going to settle for mediocrity.  

We had this really great bathroom that had a lovely old claw foot bath, but a big heater, which is in all the drawings, a great looking thing, which you have to light to get the hot water to come gurgling out of. And you know, I'd get in the bath. Well, there were great objects already there, all of them with a kind of sensuality about them in a way, because they were curved, they weren't sharp-edged. He just started the drawings and then returned to figuration much more closely. In a way, he ended what he wanted to do with abstraction and he started to return to figuration. They're not photorealism by any means and they’re still abstracted to a large degree, but it is the return to figuration. And obviously with a fairly clear narrative or theme, so the next exhibition he had was ‘Bathroom’, and I was the model. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: She was the model, he the painter, the creator. Throughout history the relationship between male artist and female model has often been carved up in this way. In fact, women are often called muses. But how does that dynamic stack up today?  

 

It’s a question I put to Mitch Cairns, who we heard from in episode 2. In 2017 he was the winner of the Archibald Prize, Australia’s most prestigious portraiture prize. He won with a painting of his partner, Agatha Gothe Snape, an artist in her own right and a ‘recalcitrant muse’ by her own definition.  

In this painting, she's sitting on a yoga mat in an angular, almost awkward pose. Like many Archibald winners before him, it was a controversial decision, but that's part of the fun, right? Mitch says she refused to sit still and stop what she was doing so that he could paint her.  

 

Mitch Cairns: And that’s very much about the agency of the subject as well. It's such a co-produced object, the portrait. I don't think she was deliberately trying to make the task of making a painting of her more difficult. In some ways she sort of entrusted the facility, perhaps? She entrusted the fact that we'd been together at that point 12 years and, of course, you can make a painting of me. I don't really feel like I need to sit here and make explicit this contract that we're about to sort of enter into. And that gives the whole exercise much more latitude and space and air.  

And I think it made the task more challenging, but I think that very much speaks to her as a person. So in a way she sort of imposes her parameters upon the project, which I was thankful for. It was less about me sort of pushing, pushing out. So her kind of absence in a way made an image.  

Making a painting of your partner is a strangely grounding exercise in amongst all of that. But she never sat for me, so I had to draw, you know, make drawings from memory and I had to make drawings of her in the apartment. So she obviously allowed me to make the painting, but she didn't sit for me, which kind of speaks to a bunch of things. It sort of speaks to the sort of chaos of the moment. And it also [speaks] very much about sort of asserting herself, I think, that's something that can't be separated out from the painting. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: Agatha’s refusal to sit for Mitch, and Mitch therefore creating the artwork out of the chaos of the moment, could in fact be behind his Archibald win. Perhaps it’s what made it stand out to the judges? Which, depending on how you look at it, means that even in her refusal, Agatha was still a muse of sorts. This dynamic is one that Mitch has thought about a lot, and I wanted to know, looking back at Brett and Wendy’s relationship, if he thinks there’s any similarities to be drawn? 

 

Mitch Cairns: I can understand why Wendy might not like the term ‘muse’, because it's something that's very much something that's been projected onto her, surely. I'm sure she would not have been consciously referring to herself as the muse, because it's the daily life, it dramatises or it makes more performative their relationship and what the day-to-day-ness of being together would have been. When, of course, there's a relationship between he and her in the artwork and in the images.  

It labours the point perhaps, even though there is a real term with a real meaning and it's historically loaded, it's maybe the desire to step back from something which is so, so clear the clarity of the term, which is, you know, when something sort of appears or comes across as quite obvious, there's a natural sort of recoiling regardless of what it is. It's very nice to sort of resist, and to resist is a fantastic way to proceed. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: These last few years have seen many changes. One of them has been a strong shift in how we talk about power – including how male artists choose to portray women in their work.  

 

Brett, like many artists before and after him, was inspired by the female form. He enjoyed painting, sculpting, drawing, and celebrating them. But in doing so, he was also containing them: their voices and sometimes their art. 

   

Some would argue that Brett was making work ‘in his time’; that was the way things were. But how should we criticise his work today against these larger issues? The world has a long way to go before the voices of women, people of colour, and minority groups are truly given an equal amount of space. We can acknowledge and continue to enjoy the beauty within Brett’s art. But we must also recognise their place in a long history of the female form being relegated to an object for the male gaze.  

 

Thanks to Wendy Whiteley, Mitch Cairns, Anne Ryan and Deborah Kelly. 

 

This podcast has been brought to you by the Brett Whiteley Studio in collaboration with the Art Gallery of New South Wales. If you want to see more of Brett’s work, go to his studio: it’s open to the public from Thursday to Sunday and admission is free. 

My name’s Fenella Kernebone, thanks for joining me.  

This final episode talks about one of Brett Whiteley’s greatest works and one of his most significant in scale and ambition. What inspired the painting’s narrative of birth to enlightenment? What is the significance and legacy of the artist Brett Whiteley? Fenella Kernebone talks with curator Anne Ryan and Barry Pearce; Wendy Whiteley; artist Abdul Abdullah; and Whiteley's biographer Ashleigh Wilson. 

To view the artworks mentioned in the titles go to agnsw.art/bwspodcast.

Fenella Kernebone: A quick heads-up: in this series we talk about drug use, mental health issues and there’s a bit of swearing.   

Alec George: Welcome to the Brett Whiteley Studio. Have you been here before at all? 

Fenella Kernebone: I’m Fenella Kernebone and this is Art, life and the other thing. I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which this podcast was made, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. 

In this series I sit down with some of Australia’s most exciting contemporary artists and curators at the Brett Whiteley Studio to talk about his work and how it’s impacted their own careers. 

In each episode so far, we’ve focused on one of Brett’s artworks and by looking at that work, we’ve unpacked bigger issues about the wider Australian arts landscape.  

Well, in this final episode, we’re talking about one of Brett’s greatest works. And one of his biggest. And I mean in scale, but also in terms of ambition, intention and legacy. It’s a piece that he had several attempts at over the years and it took him a long time to finish what we now see hanging in his Surry Hills studio. 

I’m talking about Alchemy.  

 

Anne Ryan: This is a painting that’s so large, it actually goes around the corner of the gallery space. It’s a very ambitious painting.  

 

Fenella Kernebone: This is Anne Ryan, curator of Australian art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. 

 

Anne Ryan: It’s the painting of a young artist in his thirties who’s really of the belief that art can change the world. He’d just come back to Australia after living in New York for aperiod of time where he had tried to paint a similarly ambitious painting that failed. It was a a personal and artistic point of crisis for him. It ended up with him retreating from the great arts centre of New York, coming back to Australia and having to recalibrate and reassess.  

 

Fenella Kernebone: The painting is made up of 18 separate wood panels. It’s big – 16 metres long in total. And it’s full of Brett’s signature confident flowing brushstrokes, along with an assortment of symbolic ephemera. To see the piece online, go to agnsw.art/bwspodcast.  

 

Anne Ryan: Like much of his work, it’s really very much about him and it’s autobiographical. It’s read from right to left, but equally you could read it from left to right. So it’s a painting that you can journey along and find all sorts of stories. It’s not just a painting, of course. There’s all sorts of elements in this picture, including stuffed birds, magazine collage, electric lights. There’s even a little window containing some of his own hair. If you read the work from right to left, we have a blue watery world and an image of conception, of sort of a carnal image of the beginnings of human life, right through to the end where we end up with an ethereal, abstract, white, almost winged-like form on a golden background, quite ‘Oriental’ looking in aesthetic.  

But as you journey through the picture, you see all these little clues as to the things that made him tick. There are artistic references to artists that were meaningful to him, such as Vincent van Gogh, Francis Bacon, Hieronymus Bosch – a great Flemish painter who’s endlessly fascinating. You can find references to the Australian landscape, the landscape beyond the Blue Mountains – the area where he went to school around Bathurst – that sort of yellowy, dry, grassy rural landscape of Australia. You can see references to musicians, politicians. There are so many little clues throughout this work to the key ideas and influences and obsessions that drove his work, particularly around this time. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: Painted over 11 months in 1972, this is very much an autobiographical work. Wendy Whiteley points out that even the baby in ‘Alchemy’ looks like Brett. 

  

Wendy Whiteley: It’s kind of a portrait of Brett’s life, really. There’s the conception, there’s, you know, the birth, which is obviously him being born with a red, little, red-headed baby. Though if a baby had been born with all of that hair, it would have been remarkable, and then we just go through it.  

It’s a painting that needs to be looked at from a distance first and then to be moved right in, close up to it so that you start to see all that the details, which are often quite surreal in the sense of being very influenced by Bosch’s ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’. Little things from the mind and references to people Brett either admired or hated.  

Another self-portrait, but the little door that gets covered up. There’s a plug, which implies the whole thing could go down the plug hole at one stage. It’s an extraordinary picture. And I think the more you look at it, the more you get involved in the actual what’s going on in it, when you get up close, the more you’re able to like it. You know, it’s really, it’s a trip. It’s an organised excursion.  

He had a theory that the best way to have a life story told would be for him as an artist, would be to have a three-mile-long gallery. So you just started at the beginning of a life and went to the other end. This is a kind of smaller version of that idea. And it’s interesting to watch people actually walking along the front of it and what catches their attention and what draws them into it like a magnet to peer very closely at what goes on with it. So you can see people actually living the experience as well, which is interesting because everything it refers to is still going on today and went on thousands of years ago and will go on forever. It’s love, hate, the beauty of the landscape, the fears of everything going on in one’s personal life and relates to everybody. I think it’s both very intensely personal, but it also relates to most people looking at it. It’s a language that’s understandable in the end. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: Barry Pearce, the former curator of Australian art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, once wrote that Brett Whiteley was envious of the power of pop musicians and he dreamt of ‘Alchemy’ reaching a mass audience.  

 

Currently, the piece is on display in the corner across two walls at the Brett Whiteley Studio in Surry Hills; it needs a big space to exhibit it. But Barry Pearce says ‘Alchemy’ should be displayed on a curve. 

Barry Pearce: I’m burning for that painting to be shown in a proper way. Because, you see, he was on about endlessness-ism and what makes, what is the place of infinity and our way of thinking about life and art. And he painted ‘Alchemy’ on an arc, on a curve. He was on about [Albert] Einstein’s theory of relativity that if you go out into space, you don’t follow a straight line, you actually go on a curve. And what happens if you stay on the path of a curve for a long, infinite, but a long time, you come back to where you start started. And what he wanted to do with ‘Alchemy’ was have a narrative going from birth to death and enlightenment. On the left you see all the sexual thing, the birth pains, and on the other end it’s based on [Yukio] Mishima, a Japanese painting about enlightenment. And when we’re through and done, we see gold, the gold of enlightenment all around us. It’s like a view of heaven, I suppose. But if they hung it like it was meant to be on a curve, then you’ve, if you follow that line at either end – either end in your imagination – will meet again. So, and that’s infinite infinity and its endlessness-ism. And that’s what that painting is all about. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: What are you seeing in ‘Alchemy’, what is he trying to convey?  

  

Barry Pearce: Well, it’s like the [Charles] Baudelaire idea that to get to heaven you have to go through hell. Baudelaire said, you know, flowers grow from shit, you know, like, and so it’s, it’s about all the pain and the violence in the world and you go through it and go through it. And finally, if you can get through it, if you can get your way through it, you come out into enlightenment and a peaceful view. It’s a very, I suppose, a traditional ... It’s like a kind of religious picture, in some ways. But a kind of a secular religious picture, if you can, if that’s possible.  

It’s a journey and the journey of the painting as a painting is that the beauty of it is you can go back and forth either way. You don’t have to start with birth and then finish up with the end, the end of days, I suppose it is through all the nightmare and the pleasures and everything in between. You can actually track back and it tells us that Brett thinks history has much to tell us. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: Considering where Brett fits within the culture or the pantheon of Australian art, where do you think he sits within the cultural landscape? 

  

Barry Pearce: He delivers us very brave ideas about what it means to be alive and the, you know, the pleasure and pain of life, you know. And I think there are artists who can give us the pleasure in small things. And if you’re lucky, you can bring them both together. Brett had this romantic kind of idea about painting that if you, if you are bold and you have a serious purpose, you can achieve something that’s good for the world, good for people. In that sense, what the challenges he faced and he had the guts to do it even against a lot of hatred and envy, for me puts him up very high in the pantheon. He persisted. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: He did persist, but as we’ve spoken about already in this series, it came at a cost. To understand more about what was going on in the background for Brett at the time of making ‘Alchemy’, here’s Anne Ryan again. 

 

Anne Ryan: He is an artist trying to change the world and he thought he could do that through art. And a lot of artists – especially young artists – think that that’s possible. They think that art has the potential to change the world. Most of the time it doesn’t. But you can’t fault the ambition of this work and to sustain something over such a scale is enormously difficult. So the thing that comes out of this is not just the ambition, but also the raw talent of this artist and the kind of hard work and thought that went into an object like this is fascinating. 

  

Fenella Kernebone: Why was he so impacted do you think at the time to want to create a work such as this? What was really going on for him at the time? 

 

Anne Ryan: Brett Whiteley made this work having had his wings clipped a bit. He got success internationally very young. He was extremely talented, but he was also extremely fortunate in being at the right time and meeting the right people and having the right personality to get his work in front of an audience that for Australians at that time really mattered, and that was in England.  

And his work got picked up by institutions really early. It was collected by the Tate, which was the big important contemporary collecting institution in London at the time, in his early twenties, almost unheard of. So he had a start, unlike most other artists as a young man, and I imagine it would have really boosted his confidence at a time when he was still trying to work stuff out. So he had this moment of great success and great creativity and a great flourishing of his voice, a kind of development of his voice. 

  

And he goes to New York thinking, ‘Okay, I’ve made it in London, now I’ve got to make it in the centre.’ And that was New York and he failed. And he tried to make this big picture while he was there, that would solve the problems of America. It would, it would make America and therefore the world kind of figure out what was going on and sort it out. A kind of a fool’s errand, if you like.  

The failure of that picture was concurrent with difficulties in his personal life. He was married to Wendy, they had a small daughter and they were making a life over there. But he was sinking into drinking too much and getting involved with stuff that wasn’t helping his work and certainly wasn’t helping his family life. So it was really a crisis moment for him. He left, he pretty much just upped and left New York and disappeared, went to Fiji and Wendy was left to kind of tidy up the life and move the family to follow him. Had to leave Fiji and had to come back to Australia. And, really, I think it was at that moment when he came back here and he thought, ‘Right, I’m from here, this is my place, I’ve got to make work about this place.’ And so it’s kind of where he felt he had to start on a new path. And this picture is like a very loud declaration of that. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: We know now that Brett made it work here in Australia, artistically at least. ‘Alchemy’ is firmly part of the Australian canon. But what did people think of it at the time? 

  

Anne Ryan: Well, nobody had ever seen anything quite like it. And when it was shown commercially in Sydney after it was made in 1973, it was shown with a whole bunch of other materials, notebooks and things, his thoughts, his ideas, quotations, a lot of which didn’t make sense. A lot of what he wrote was – for a reader that wasn’t him – is hard to understand or fathom and some of it feels really deep and some of it feels a bit shallow and it’s like, because he just got it all out there and wrote it all down. And he used to have … the exhibition openings he used to have at the time were events, they were happenings, you know, there’d be all sorts of things going on. So, of course, people thought it was amazing. Of course, it’s the kind of picture which is really, really hard to deal with. You can’t buy it for your house. You can’t, you can’t stick it above the fireplace. 

  

Fenella Kernebone: Doesn’t match my couch. 

  

Anne Ryan: It’s bigger than most museum walls. So it’s a kind of a problem as well. And so having the ability to display it in this form, in the Brett Whiteley Studio in Sydney, is a rare thing. It demands a lot of space. Some artists kind of demand a lot of space, and this picture certainly does that. 

  

Fenella Kernebone: So how does Brett Whiteley’s legacy sit within Australia’s contemporary art landscape? And how do Australia’s contemporary artists view this legacy? 

Many of the artists who we’ve spoken to in this podcast studied Brett Whiteley at school. In fact, lots of school students did, even I did when I was in high school. One of those is Abdul Abdullah, who we spoke to in episode 4. As a seventh-generation Australian Muslim, his work tackles the big themes of what it means to be Australian in a contemporary multicultural landscape. 

  

Abdul Abdullah: Brett Whiteley was the first artist I was introduced to when studying art in high school. He was the Australian name that we were all familiar with and we all had some idea of the type of work that he produced. 

Fenella Kernebone: And did you like his work growing up? Can you remember your feelings about his work, if you had any? 

Abdul Abdullah: I certainly had an aesthetic connection to his work. It’s an interesting story ‘cause that relationship has shifted and changed. The first thing that I was introduced to were his ‘Zoo’ series or the ink drawings, the ‘Zoo’ series. And I remember particularly a drawing of a, like a, it would have been a baboon, like a very angry looking baboon that I looked at in high school and I was quite enamored by it. And that image has stuck with me ever since I think. 

Fenella Kernebone: What is it about the image, the fact that it’s just so visceral, angry, whatever? 

Abdul Abdullah: Yeah, there’s a way that he painted it, I think, in the brush marks. The way it was almost a caricature of a baboon, but it was very aggressive in the way that the baboon was reacting, I guess. And I hadn’t seen much drawing like that outside of comic books and that sort of thing. So I guess that was an appeal for me, especially like when I was like 13 or 14 when I was looking at it. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: Abdul’s recognition in the art world has some similarity with Brett’s – he’s a 5-times finalist of the Archibald Prize, a finalist of the Wynne landscape prize and Sulman Prize, and he won the Blake Prize in 2011. So what does he think when he looks at Alchemy?  

Abdul Abdullah: Looking at it, it’s sort of, it’s hard not to relate it to recent works that I’ve done. So I had a show at the Armory Show in New York at the beginning of the year [2020], which was a multi-panel work that went across three walls, sort of all-encompassing in a similar way that ‘Alchemy’ is exhibited. And there was a correlation in the way that it was made. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: It’s interesting because if you think about ‘Alchemy’ and you think about some of his other works – obviously, ‘Alchemy’ is a case in point – you know, it has a lot of mixed mediums that is in it. He’s drawn on it, he’s put sculptural bits on it, the whole ‘kit and caboodle’, as they say, is part of it. And that’s something that you also do, to a degree. 

  

Abdul Abdullah: Yeah, I guess I really appreciate the freeness in the way that he produces work. Like the fact that he feels unencumbered by a particular medium and he can move across things. And what I can really appreciate is the idea of him wanting to communicate an idea and not being limited in the way that he’s going to communicate. Like he’s still working on it like a 2D surface was sculptural form, but there’s a freeness to the way that he works that I really like and I can really relate to in the way that I produce work. I like to sort of have an expanded practice in terms of materials and not feel sort of tied down or totally made or attached to specifically paint. 

  

Fenella Kernebone: When you look at a work like ‘Alchemy’, it’s clear that Brett’s trying to get something down on the canvas. Or rather, a lot of things down. It’s his story, his legacy. Of course, that’s now interpreted through the lens of the current cultural landscape. So as a contemporary artist, I’m curious to know where Abdul thinks Brett and his legacy fits today? 

 

Abdul Abdullah: That’s a really interesting question ’cause I think there’s good and there’s bad. And this is only theorising, like again, I’m not telling you how it is. I don’t know how it is, but I’ve got plenty of theories about it and I’ve thought about it a lot, about the legacy of an artist like Brett Whiteley. And it’s difficult to separate the man from his practice. So to isolate those paintings and go, ‘This is what they’re about’... It’s hard not to include his life as context for that work. But, on the other hand, his legacy as an Australian artist is, sort of, that lineage has gone in all sorts of different ways through art schools and the way that people approach ... Like, I have to, looking at his ink drawings of those animals, like that has still stuck with me. And every Australian artist that I know has been sort of at least, if not directly influenced, there’s an implicit influence in the way that they make their work as ‘the Australian artist’. There’s also that dangerous legacy of ‘this is what an Australian artist is’, this sort of ‘tortured genius’ and ‘this is what you have to be to be an artist’, which I think is pretty archaic. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: That was really interesting, this idea that to be able to be an artist and to have legacy, you have to be kind of tortured. Tell me a bit about what your thoughts are on that. 

  

Abdul Abdullah: Yeah. Like thinking about the legacy of Brett Whiteley and that perception in Australia of what an artist should be or how an artist should behave and how you have to be that tortured genius to sort of express yourself. And for the audience there is this voyeurism that’s attached to it where you’re seeing almost a person spiralling or act or behaving in a way that either they wished they’d want to behave like or they could behave like, or just out of sort of watching a rock star damage themselves and they need to be that damaged to create this genius work.  

But for me, even the idea of genius is really problematic. That idea of someone being elevated intellectually or otherwise above everyone else is, I think, at its very base, kind of wrong. And as far as legacy, it’s hard to say with established Australian artists, but like, I’ve, you know, spent a lot of time in different art schools. And it’s funny seeing like, especially young male painters like mirroring him and his, you know, the way that he painted – the craziness, the hair, everything about him – that was who they wanted to be and who they thought they had to be. But I don’t know if that’s necessarily the best way to communicate. And I don’t know how that fits in a 21st-century context. I think we are responsible – not that people then had any less responsibility – but we are certainly responsible for everything that we say and that we do. 

  

Fenella Kernebone: Do you think we need to create a new legacy? And if we do, what kind of new legacy would you, could you imagine? 

  

Abdul Abdullah: A new legacy? I think artists like Richard Bell are creating a new legacy for how Australian art is seen, especially how Australian art is seen from the outside.  

Richard Bell is an Aboriginal artist from Brisbane. He’s one of the founding members of a collective called ProppaNow, which I think is the best group of artists, the best group of artists in the country. He works mostly with painting, but he’s also done a lot of video and installation. He’s travelled a tent embassy, which is an artwork but also a point of protest. He calls himself an activist masquerading as an artist. And I really like that. His visual literacy, his visual language is not something that can be copied. And I see him as a mentor, but I’m not trying to emulate his practice or his language or his style or anything like that. I just see him as sort of like someone that I could look up to in the way that he practises. And I think that he’s got a lot to offer to the Australian conscience. For me, he’s the best.  

Richard’s having an exhibition at the Tate Modern, either next year or the year after and Brett Whiteley was acquired by the Tate Modern, but I can’t think of an Australian artist who’s had a solid presentation at a space like that. I even joked around with Richard like that there’s an Australian in Venice every two years, but there’s never been an Australian at the Tate Modern. So this is for me a rawer legacy of Australian art, what Richard represents. His life experiences and how he articulates that Australian experience and that uniquely Australian experience. I think that is really, really valuable and valuable to how Australian art is perceived going into the future.  

And I think without that context – and it’s hard because, like I said, I don’t know Brett Whiteley, I don’t know his personal experiences – but it’s hard to see art that was made in Australia or art that was made by an Australian artist in the sixties and seventies that didn’t explicitly or even, in my eyes, implicitly consider like an Indigenous experience. It seems to be a big part of the puzzle that’s missing. And that’s very frustrating. And then when you see Australian artists now from that generation, who are still working who are dismissive of Aboriginal practices, like the artist [Betty Kuntiwa Pumani] in the Wynne Prize – I think John Olsen said that he didn’t consider [the winning work ‘Antara’ 2019] a landscape – like that sort of thing is, yeah, it’s hard not to be cynical. 

  

Fenella Kernebone: Brett Whiteley’s legacy is inescapable. His images are ubiquitous and his paintings recognisable to many Australians. But his biographer Ashleigh Wilson says Brett himself was always struggling with that question of where he would fit within the history or legacy of art, often referencing his own mentors and influences within his own paintings. 

  

Ashleigh Wilson: Brett was very conscious of his role in the journey of art and in the timeline of art in general – Australian art and art globally. He was very conscious of the Australian art tradition. And he was very conscious of being a part of it. And the responsibility and the weight of carrying that was very heavy upon him. He was a great student of history, of art history and he knew where … the heroes of the past, his visual heroes of the past, he was acutely conscious and respectfully aware I think of jumping into that timeline. And so his relationship with Lloyd Rees at the end of Lloyd’s life, at a personal level, but especially at an artistic level, was profound. But really early in Brett’s career when he was still in Sydney he decided to go to the Sofala [NSW] one day, a big boozy weekend probably with a couple of mates, Michael Johnson and others. And he created a picture which is called ‘Sofala’. But in doing so, he was very consciously putting himself in an artistic tradition. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: As someone who has spent a great deal of time studying and writing about Brett – not as an historian or critic, but as a writer and journalist – Ashleigh has his own ideas about Brett’s legacy. 

 

Ashleigh Wilson: It’s always for other people to assess his own significance and legacy. But I think what’s important is that his life story – and this is funny for a biographer to say – but is largely irrelevant to some extent; it’s irrelevant without the presence of his art. Because if we were just talking about a charismatic drug addict who had a number of famous friends, it would have a limited interest, but an interest all the same. But the fact that he still captures the imagination of so many people is not something to be ignored. And it speaks to the enduring legacy of his work. And if we’re going to continue to talk about him, think about him and think of him as an important figure then it will be on the basis of his work and not his life that that happens.  

 

One of the things that I like about him and about his legacy is that you can hardly help wandering past Sydney Harbour on a rainy day or a sunny day, either way, it doesn’t even need to be outside Lavender Bay, but when you just notice out of the corner of your eyes, the streaks of white at the back of a ship going past or a bird flying past and you realise that you’re kind of looking at a Whiteley coming to life and it’s like the landscape bending to his vision. 

 

Fenella Kernebone: It seems fitting that rather than leaving behind a written autobiography, Brett instead left us with an artwork to tell the story of his life. And like the man himself, the artwork is incredibly complex, slowly drawing you in to show you a world filled with joy and turmoil. 

 

In keeping Brett’s legacy alive, his mother, the late Beryl Whiteley, established and generously allocated funds to administer the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship. Its goal is to encourage excellence in painting, but it’s also about offering young artists the same opportunity to develop their careers as were afforded to her son. 

 

The scholarship is a painting prize for artists aged between 20 to 30 with an established body of work who are best able to demonstrate the use and benefit of the scholarship to further their art education in Europe. If you want to find out more information about that scholarship, head over to the Studio website. 

 

While some parts of Brett’s legacy may be best left in the past, his works and the impact of his art will always hold a special place for many of us. And I’m sure that his way of approaching art will continue to inspire future generations of young Australian artists, pushing them to follow in his footsteps to create art that continues to push the boundaries. 

 

Anne Ryan: Brett Whiteley is part of the canon of Australian art – if there is such a thing, I think there still is – so he’s an artist that will be remembered as an historical figure. I have found when I’ve looked at artists from the past that there is this situation where an artist is contemporary, then they’re no longer relevant. Then they’re historical. Then they’re rediscovered. And I think that Brett Whiteley and his work will be part of that trajectory. I think there are generations of young people who don’t know his art like my generation did when he was alive. The great thing about the Studio, of course, is that people can discover him for the first time or return to him as a familiar friend. And so I think his legacy, because the highest points of his career were iconic works in the story of Australian painting, he will always have that place, but his relevance will depend on each successive generation and how they respond to what he does. 

  

Fenella Kernebone: Thank you to this episode’s guests: Wendy Whiteley, Anne Ryan, Abdul Abdullah, Barry Pearce and Ashleigh Wilson. 

 

Throughout this series we’ve talked to Brett’s family, peers, curators, writers and contemporary artists. But still, we’ve only peeled back a small layer of the Brett Whiteley catalogue to explore the ‘alchemy’ that goes into creating great works of art. 

  

So if you want to find out more, the best thing you can do is head into the Brett Whiteley Studio yourself. It is incredible to see those works up on his walls where he used to live and work and create art. You can visit Brett’s studio in Sydney from Thursday to Sunday. Admission is free. 

   

This podcast was recorded live in the Brett Whiteley Studio in Surry Hills. We would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which the Brett Whiteley Studio stands, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation and pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging. From our location here in this art museum, it is important to acknowledge those sites that stood before. The Sydney region has more rock engravings than any other city in Australia. Some of these sites depict an intimate knowledge of the stars, seafaring relationships with Pacific neighbours and complex social systems. Many more have been desecrated and lost beneath shopping centres, roads and houses. As we cherish and protect those works that hang on gallery walls, so too should we be advocating for the awareness, maintenance and protection of some of our nation’s oldest art forms. 

  

Thank you to the Brett Whiteley Foundation and the benefactors of the Brett Whiteley Studio who have made this podcast possible. 

  

Concepts, themes and episodes were developed by Michela Angeloni, Alacoque Dash, Alec George and Jennifer Macey. The producer is Jennifer Macey with production assistance by Alacoque Dash and Lizzie Jack. Production supervision by Leonie Jones.  

 

Special thanks to Lucy Luo, Holly Forrest and Grace Crivellaro, and Audiocraft for production support. 

   

The Brett Whiteley Studio is managed by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Free admission is made possible by J.P. Morgan. For more information about the Brett Whiteley Studio, you can go to their website where you can listen to audio guides of current exhibitions. Go to artgallery.nsw.gov.au/brett-whiteley-studio 

  

‘Art, life and the other thing’ is brought to you by the Brett Whiteley Studio in collaboration with the Art Gallery of New South Wales. 

   

My name is Fenella Kernebone. It’s been wonderful being your host, thanks for joining me.  

 

 

  

 

  • 01
    Introducing ‘Art, life and the other thing’
    1 minute
  • 02
    Episode 1: ‘Interior, Lavender Bay’
    30 minutes
  • 03
    Episode 2: ‘Art, life and the other thing’
    24 minutes
  • 04
    Episode 3: ‘The heroin clock’
    26 minutes
  • 05
    Episode 4: ‘The balcony 2’
    23 minutes
  • 06
    Episode 5: ‘Sculptures of her’
    25 minutes
  • 07
    Episode 6: ‘Alchemy’
    34 minutes