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The nude has been predominant really … a very major part of my work. Even when I was painting abstractions, in a way I was painting the nude, but out of focus with no specific definition, and when I broke into figuration, it was the bathroom pictures, it was pictures of my wife in the bath.

— Brett Whiteley, 1989

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Brett Whiteley, 'Summer field painting no. 2', 1962, Art Gallery of New South Wales. Gift of Beryl Whiteley 1996 © Wendy Whiteley
Brett Whiteley, 'Summer field painting no. 2', 1962

After Whiteley married Wendy Julius in London in March 1962, the couple spent six months in Sigean in the south of France. Whiteley’s most elegant and relaxed abstract work emerged from his idyllic life there. But Sigean also signalled a move away from both landscape and abstraction into figuration. The transition had begun. Following their stay in Sigean, the Whiteleys travelled to Spain and New York before returning to London and settling into a new studio. The last Sigean abstractions that Whiteley worked on show an increasing preoccupation with the female torso, as though seen from a distance and in multiple forms dispersed across a shallow pictorial field. He then began his bathroom series, preserving the warm reds and honey colours of his abstractions while combining them with the acid blues and greens of the bathroom.

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Brett Whiteley, 'Wendy', 1965, Brett Whiteley Studio Collection © Wendy Whiteley
Brett Whiteley, 'Wendy', 1965

Whiteley visited Australia for several months during 1965–66 and discovered further expressive possibilities here. He gave the female nude a natural setting on the clean, dazzling beaches, recording the pleasures that its curves and contours brought to his draughtsman’s gaze. For the next three decades nudes, principally inspired by Wendy, appeared consistently in Whiteley’s work in notebooks, easel drawings and large-scale paintings.

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Brett Whiteley, 'Her' from the series 'Four studies of her', 1975, Brett Whiteley Studio Collection © Wendy Whiteley
Brett Whiteley, 'Her' from the series 'Four studies of her', 1975

Whiteley made a number of drawing studies for nude sculpture, executing them mainly in wood and making use of the natural figurative forms of tree trunks and branches.

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Brett Whiteley, 'Page of sculptures', Brett Whiteley Studio Collection © Wendy Whiteley
Brett Whiteley, 'Page of sculptures'

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Brett Whiteley, 'Woman in bath', 1963, re-worked 1964, Art Gallery of New South Wales. Purchased with funds provided by the Art Gallery Society of New South Wales 2000 © Wendy Whiteley
Brett Whiteley, 'Woman in bath', 1963, re-worked 1964

When I analysed my own body I couldn’t find a single straight line on it or in it.

— Brett Whiteley

Whiteley started to focus on the single figure, the naked form of his wife Wendy in the bath, capturing the tactility and tones of her flesh with an intimacy rarely equalled in his later paintings of the same subject. Something of the colours and broad shapes of Piero della Francesca’s works admired by Whiteley was retained, but there was a closer tradition of figurative painting making an impact on him, particularly through the work of Pierre Bonnard and Francis Bacon. Indeed, one of Bonnard’s most striking bath paintings was at the Tate gallery and Whiteley was impressed by a reproduction of this he saw in the studio of British painter William Scott.

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Brett Whiteley, 'Bathroom drawing', 1963, Brett Whiteley Studio Collection © Wendy Whiteley
Brett Whiteley, 'Bathroom drawing', 1963

Focusing on the naked form of his wife Wendy in the bath, Whiteley’s 'Woman in bath’ series, captured the tactility and tones of her flesh with a profound intimacy rarely equalled in later paintings on this subject.

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Brett Whiteley, 'After the swim, Tangier', 1986-87, Private Collection © Wendy Whiteley
Brett Whiteley, 'After the swim, Tangier', 1986-87

Whiteley was the master of the curve. He explained that he drew best in loose-fitting clothes which did not restrict the movements of his body. To work on a large scale he needed the freedom for those large gestures and sweeps of his arm. He drew with his shoulder and controlled the result with his fingers and wrist. Like a great virtuoso violinist he created the sound by his exceptional eye for line. It is the natural instinct which is responsible for the great sophistication and sensitivity of his marks.

— Lou Klepac, art historian, author and publisher

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Brett Whiteley, 'Figure on orange background', 1961, Art Gallery of New South Wales © Art Gallery of New South Wales
Brett Whiteley, 'Figure on orange background', 1961

Whiteley paid homage to Matisse and Picasso in his work, placing the nude in interiors as well as on the sand, although his interpretations were often more frankly erotic, and on occasions more brutal in distortion, than either of those European masters.

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Brett Whiteley, 'Bather and mirror (second version)', 1964, Brett Whiteley Studio Collection © Wendy Whiteley
Brett Whiteley, 'Bather and mirror (second version)', 1964

Looking and responding

Whiteley frequently used his wife Wendy as a subject in his artworks. If you were depicting a loved one in a series of artworks, what are some of the factors you would consider in doing so?

Look quickly at the painting 'Woman in bath’ and write down five words that immediately come to mind. After spending a longer time inspecting the work what do you notice that you didn’t notice initially?

Bathrooms are often intimate, private places which suggests that 'Woman in bath’ is a painting of someone the artist knows very well. Are there any other details that give us this impression?

'Woman in bath’ belongs to Whiteley’s bathroom series, which he started in 1963. The painting was reworked in 1964. Why might Whiteley have felt the need to rework this painting? What does this decision tell us about his art practice?

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Brett Whiteley, 'Two figures Bondi', 1986, Brett Whiteley Studio Collection © Wendy Whiteley
Brett Whiteley, 'Two figures Bondi', 1986

Making

Cut out images of bodies from magazines and arrange them to make a collage of a figure with distorted perspective and scale.

Use a bendy mirror or piece of reflective material to take photos of yourself. Pay attention to framing and composition. Draw some quick sketches of these photographs using line rather than colour or shading.

Choose a friend, family member or someone else that is close to you. Make a plan for a portrait of them in their home, sketching and annotating some different options for this portrait, including some potential titles. Show this person your studies and explain your decisions. Note their response and based on this, select one option to work from.

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