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Portraiture is, for me, ... probably the most difficult area of creation. Because in many ways it’s been made obsolete because of photography. How do you make a picture that works as art but also refers to a person, to their likeness and to them? – Brett Whiteley

Portraiture for Brett Whiteley was an insight into the psychology of the human condition. This exhibition showcases the artist`s diverse exploration of the subject and includes the critically acclaimed works Self-portrait in the studio 1976 and Art, life and the other thing 1978, both of which won the prestigious Archibald Prize. Here, the artist reveals layers of himself and defines portraiture as something beyond the physical self to include his environment, personal and artistic influences, whether affirming or self destructive. Incredibly honest, his works on the subject of portraiture cover the range of human emotion and pay homage to a legacy of artists and writers whom he admired – Francis Bacon, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Arthur Rimbaud and Henri Matisse.

Whiteley was fascinated with our potentiality for good and evil and the notion of self. He read the selected works of CG Jung and the writings of the Scottish psychiatrist RD Laing who, in his studies and investigations, would create self-induced states of madness in order to understand this area of the human mind. The author of the divided self – these aspects and fragmentary states of mind were powerful notions which Whiteley felt deeply. This sense of duality and the potential we have for love and hate, compassion and cruelty were a foundation for Whiteley to delve into his psyche and surface with an artwork to further understand the human spirit and consequently himself.

For portraiture to survive, especially self-portraiture, there has to be a deepening quality of self-revelation. Portraiture shouldn’t just be paint and canvas. – Whiteley

Issues for consideration

  • Look at the portraits in this exhibition. What do you think the artist is trying to reveal to the audience? What makes Whiteley’s portraits different to others you have seen?
  • Can you see evidence of Whiteley’s artistic heroes in his paintings? How do these references add meaning to the work?
  • Drawing inspiration from Whiteley, create a self-portrait that reveals layers of you and goes beyond the physical self to include your environment and personal and artistic influences.