Join curator Anne Ryan and Wendy Whiteley in conversation about key works in the exhibition. Look for the corresponding number on the wall to follow their path.
AR: Welcome to Brett Whiteley, Drawing Is Everything. My name is Anne Ryan and I'm the curator of the exhibition. Join Wendy Whiteley and me in conversation as we walk through the show with you. Look out for the audio symbols to hear more about the themes and works in each room.
AR: Hi Wendy, thanks for coming.
WW: Hi Anne.
AR: So we’re gonna walk through the exhibition today and as we come across things that are interesting to talk about, let’s talk about them.
AR: Here we are in the introductory area of the exhibition. And here we find ourselves in the presence of two key characters. Brett Whiteley and you, Wendy Whiteley. Tell us a little bit about how you met Brett and how it all started and how you got to where you are today, talking to me about this show.
WW: That’s a very long convoluted story with its ups and downs. But I first met him when I was going to East Sydney Tech it was called then, now the National Art School. He was working at Lintas having just run away from Scots Bathurst, I was just on the cusp of being 16 and a friend of his took me out on a date to the movies and then said would I like to meet somebody who was interested in the same things as I was, which was Art with a capital A. So he took me around to Brett’s place and we went from there.
Brett took me on a date to a sketch club, Jack Santry’s sketch club in Northwood. Drove me in his father’s old Wolseley Hornet which was very romantic. And we met Lloyd Rees was at the sketch club that night. Didn’t draw the nude but both Brett and I did, but I met Lloyd Rees then for the first time too. We just started going out together from that moment on.
That was the end of the friend and all the other boys and Brett did his best to get me out of the art school because I had, in his eyes, too much freedom to flirt. Eventually he won and I worked with his father. And then when he won the scholarship I worked two jobs to save up the money to join him in Italy. So it went from there until now. He’s dead. I’m still here. He’s been dead for 26 years. I’ve had quite a long career since then, really.
AR: You have, you have. I think it’s easy to say, it’s very clear to say that without you, Brett Whiteley’s career wouldn’t have had the trajectory that it did, so I’m really glad you joined us today to talk about your experiences of your lives together, but also your recollections of the works that we’re going to see today.
WW: I’m always very impressed when I first see a Whiteley show.
AR: Well, it’s seeing it again. Seeing it with new eyes.
WW: Well, it’s seeing it, and seeing it with new eyes and this is going to be very interesting because you’re doing the curating and that’s going to be like somebody else’s view.
AR: That’s right.
WW: Even though we’re forced to work together.
AR: Oh, it’s a trial.
AR: Let’s go around the corner and we’re going to start at the very beginning when Brett was in Sydney learning how to be a draughtsman. Do you remember his earliest efforts at learning to be an artist?
WW: Not his very earliest efforts because I didn’t know him then, because he really started, wanting to be an artist when he was a kid. Drawing’s where he started, as most kids do. He wasn’t an abstract expressionist that never drew and often can’t draw. I think, I still think that drawing is fundamental to understanding great abstract expressionism too. I certainly think somebody like Cy Twombly wouldn’t exist without being able to draw. It’s kind of a catch-22. I think it’s fundamental to everything and I don’t see, I personally don’t and Brett didn’t either, see it as any different to painting. One’s got colour, one hasn’t. But I don’t see why drawing, in this country anyways is thought of as kind of lesser than painting. The image either works and exists with the power it should have, or it doesn’t. That’s it.
AR: He talks about that period when he left school. He attended different classes at different places to try and teach himself his craft, if you like.
WW: Well he got a job as a commercial artist. So first of all, and they were pretty sympathetic, Brian Wicks who was head of the art department at Lintas then was sympathetic to both him, Mick Johnson and Max Cullen because they were all working together and he used to let them take paper out of the cupboard and leave a bit of it on the weekend so they could go off on painting trips and things like that. All of the commercial artists probably wished that they could have been artists rather than commercial artists, but the job was to learn to do Rinso packets and things for Lintas.
He had to work quite hard to free himself up to be able to draw the way he did and it’s interesting that he also left those experimental lines in the early drawings of the nude and things. He did go to Julian Ashton’s at night, usually he and Michael, they’d usually be a bit pissed and they’d go in and old Mr, I’ve forgotten his name, he was a very severe old art teacher, used to let them go in there and sit because they had the nude to draw and the sketch clubs provided a nude and East Sydney Tech let them in sometimes to draw the nude as visitors, but they never went to art school in the sense that everybody else did.
AR: We progress onto a wall of drawings which are all from Europe, because of course the big thing that really marked a change in his visual education was leaving Australia and going to Europe. Do you remember these early days when you were in Paris?
WW: That’s both true and not true because really he started doing those early abstractions here in Australia, and they pivoted off a lot of little books which we used to look at. They were little miniature books, very interesting. It was that first sort of flattened space for pictures, and then Lloyd Rees had an enormous effect on Brett and the aerial view which affected all abstract artists. So out of those kind of things, which you can see in the Italian Government scholarship is already beginning to happen.
WW: The colour in the early Australian pictures is very Australian.
WW: And remained quite Australian for a while in Italy, too, ’cause he found some red and stuff like that. But in Italy straightaway you see Burri and Tàpies, and people like that that we didn’t know anything about here.
WW: And Piero, so it’s getting, Piero della Francesca, most contemporary artist at that stage, David Hockney was very affected by Piero but not the literal things as much as the flattened space of the background and the baptism. So influences were coming from all directions but Brett amalgamated all those influences into something quite unique really and came up with these images in London, that really just rather hit a nerve with them as well. They just, maybe because we were so remote, he could knit together this very unique vision that he had with abstraction but he came, he kind of wore it out quite quickly. He didn’t wanna repeat himself forever, and that was his return to abstraction.
AR: We’ve got a wall here of abstractions, very early ones. And the theme that links them all together is still life. You’ve got the idea of these objects in space. And then he’s making them into something else, flattening the picture plane, bringing in collage. Was this a short-lived phase en route to abstraction or was it something that he-
WW: Still life?
AR: … he continued with throughout his career?
WW: Once again it’s also landscape again because there’s always, there’s usually a horizon line in these very early ones here. You’ve got horizon lines and you’ve got a kind of underground sense. They get the things, the shapes are going underground as well as sitting on the surface.
AR: They’re very dense.
WW: These later ones, after Sigean, all the early London ones, or Italian ones are very much more to do with the body being transposed into the landscape. So then they become much more sensual or sexual. That particular still life drawing then because at the same time Bill Scott became an influence. And he did table tops.
AR: Yes, so you can see in this drawing of a still life we have an avocado. We’ve got a bottle of milk. We’ve got these lovely rounded shapely forms where you can see that moving into the body. And that body coming into the landscape and it all melding together.
WW: Absolutely. Well, the kind of sensual thing came about more a bit later, particularly in Sigean, when we were on our honeymoon at the same time. We had this lovely house and I was there and he had the body to work on, Wendy Paramor and Brett and I used to go and bathe in the river naked until the local guys used to line up behind a bamboo to spy on us a bit. That was a bit of a nightmare, but we didn’t care that much really in those days.
AR: The Sigean period seems to have been a time when Brett was really able to devote himself to painting, and to drawing, without the distractions of London, without the distractions of the art world, which was beginning to take up quite a lot of his attention in that period of the ’60s, and it resulted in these extraordinarily experimental drawings of the landscape, resulting in these remarkable abstract paintings of the landscape. Tell us a little bit about your memories of living in that farmhouse, and paint us a picture, if you like, of your day to day life and Brett’s process during that period away from London.
WW: The process never really changed. Brett worked every day. He wasn’t happy when he wasn’t working, because he was a manic personality. Very speedy, and to slow himself down, work would slow him down and just make him much more comfortable because he was working all the time. He could sit in a chair and contemplate stuff for quite a while. He could do that. If he got into problems with pictures he could easily put it to one side and start again. The technical things that are important. It didn’t change.
Our living circumstances radically altered. In Ladbroke Grove we had one small room with a heater that you put pennies in at one end, with a bed in it, as well as all the paintings, and then one separate room that had a clonky old gas stove, and a table, and a shared bathroom with a hooker upstairs.
AR: And cold weather.
WW: When we went to Sigean we had a whole old house that Wendy Paramor had actually found. It was an old house that had been deserted in the middle of a vineyard in Sigean. We’d gone on our honeymoon and went to stay at a friend’s house in Perpignan, in the high Pyrenees. They’d gone off to New York for the holidays, and Wendy arrived in her ute and said “I’ve found these two amazing houses, do you want one?” And we went “Right, okay.” And jumped in and went there. It was idyllic. That life then was idyllic. We didn’t own a bloody thing. We had very little money, but it was just idyllic. It was great. Not owning was fantastic.
AR: Wendy, I’ve got some drawings here of you in the bath. And this was a really key moment in Brett’s development in the sense that he’s very focused on the human form and a particular human, which is this woman that he’s in love with and he’s living with in quite close quarters in London. Can you just tell us about a little bit about how these drawings and paintings happened with you in the bath in London?
WW: Once again it was to do with where we were, lifestyle. We’d come back from our honeymoon. It was after the Sigean period. Where it stayed, as you know, pretty abstracted again, but with the human form in it. And mostly it’s a kind of sensual female figure that you see rather than the phallic symbols and things. But then we went back and we found a really nice flat at the top of Notting Hill, instead of being down in the bottom and at Ladbroke Grove and it was slightly more gentile and it had a bedroom and it had a studio and it had a kitchen. It had a sitting room. Sid and Cynthia came to visit us there and everything and we lived. It was kind of more slightly more stuffy. We had stuff and Brett had the separate studio, but it had this really great bathroom that had a lovely old claw foot bath, but a big heater which is in all the drawings, great looking thing which you had to light to get the hot water to come gurgling out of and I’d get in the bath.
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, they weren’t any of those things. He just started the drawings and then moved, returned to figuration much more closely and he sought, in a way he’d ended what he wanted to do with abstraction. The he started to return to figuration. They’re not photo realism 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.
AR: How long.
WW: And I was the model.
AR: How long did you find yourself sitting in the bath being drawn?
WW: Oh that’s all nonsense all that stuff. No, he didn’t work like that Brett. He’d take a couple of photographs, Vogue London, took a famous photograph you know. Everyone asks the same question. But he never worked like that. He didn’t work plein air and you didn’t have to pose for hours, he’d just, you’d be there, you’d be doing stuff, you’d be lying on the sofa and he’d make a quick drawing and if he wanted you to be naked he would have said, oh be naked for five minutes, but it wouldn’t have been any more than that.
AR: We leave this room where we have the early London works and the early Sydney works and we come around the corner and we find ourselves in the northern part of Africa and India. It’s quite a change of scene, but it’s something that does happen with Whiteley. He does travel quite a lot throughout his life and where he goes often has an influence on what he’s doing. We have one work here called The Dealer which is one of the postcard drawings that he made. Can you tell us a little bit about that time.
WW: In Tangier?
AR: In Tangier
WW: Tangier was a holiday, but our holidays never really were two week jobs, or completely tourist. We thought we’d go to Tangier and we’ll stay there for a while. We found this amazing empty hotel on the edge of the harbour in Tangier. We chose to go to Tangier rather than any other city in Morocco, I suppose, because of Francis Bacon and Barbara Hutton, and the slightly louche atmosphere that it had, which unfortunately it changed radically in the other direction. Because, the Moroccans had got so fed up with hippies. Not having any money, smoking too much dope, behaving badly in their mosques, walking around in bare feet and bikinis, just having absolutely no respect for their culture whatsoever, that they turned against the Bohemian or hippie. We were never hippies but we did look odd.
I’d learned very quickly to try and fit it, certainly with my clothes, because I’d a few times go to the market with, immodestly dressed, and I’d have a very had time. Because, I’d have the blokes hissing down my neck the whole time. Which is annoying, that snake noise that they make. (hissing noise) . And the women would get pissed off at me too. They’d be staring at me from behind, and then thinking, “What does she expect?” The whole culture was so different. If you’re gonna live there, you just stop doing it. What are you there, to change their culture to yours? Bullshit, so I just dressed modestly. I didn’t go veiled, though I did buy some burkas I have to say, which I didn’t wear until I was back in Australia and terrified the life out of somebody because I was driving in one to go to the Surrealist exhibition.
I suddenly realized why everybody was nearly crashing as I was driving across the bridge in my Jaguar. People going like that. This was long before the days of everybody objecting to them. I don’t think people had even seen them here. They are remarkable things. It’s a very weird sense of power that comes from those things, and it intrigued Brett enormously. The eyes of the Arab women, how much they can communicate and things like that. He was very intrigued by it.
But, we had a friend called Achmed who was pretty much an outsider. Because, he drank and it’s not, they all do drink, but not they all do drink, but a lot of Arabs drink, and a lot of Muslims drink too, on the side. But, it wasn’t thing, but hashish was still around quite a lot, and he went to the dealer with Achmed, and I was on the beach with Arkie. I suddenly saw this figure come past me. He was so stoned that he didn’t know where the hell he was, and he just kept walking out to sea, and disappeared until he was like that up to his nose in the water.
AR: This is Brett or Achmed?
WW: This is Brett.
WW: With Achmed saying, “We all, we went to the dealers and he’s tried the hashish.” He tried it, he smoked it there, because the dealer said, “try this,” and so he did. That’s the dealer.
WW: With the huge thing of hashish.
WW: India was on the way back from when we here in 1960. Four or five foot from Whale Beach, and we went to India and Ravi Shankar was having a concert, much to our surprise in Calcutta, which was really mind boggling. The poverty was just knock your socks off, and a doctor friend had said you shouldn’t take a child of Arkie’s age to Calcutta. It’s too dangerous, just to catch some disease. I got very nervous about it really, because I’d say, in the hotel I’d say, “Could you boil the water,” and things like that. It would come lukewarm, and I wouldn’t be sure that it had been boiled, and oh.
We bought a pram in Hong Kong. I just said one day, I said, “This is no good. I’m really terrified Arkie’s going to get sick,” and so I went back to London and Brett stayed a few more days. He wheeled the pram around the corner and gave it away, this very smart pram, to a very surprised lady who was living in the street with her kids. But, the Shankar concert was just amazing. We saw this huge queue going around a corner, and it was people queuing up to see the latest James Bond movie. The Indians, and it went for miles, this queue.
Then we went around another corner, and it had a big sign up saying Ravi Shankar was performing that night, not a single person, half empty. He’d already had the success in the Festival Hall with Yehudi Menuhin in London and everything, so for us it was like, wow. We went and the Indians do what they do in a concert with Ravi Shankar, it doesn’t matter who it is. They all talked, and criticized, and yelled out, and we were just like mesmerized. But, it was great, and he sat on the stage with his one foot hanging over the edge, beating time with his foot, and Brett captured that drawing which is, I think is an amazing drawing.
AR: It’s full of energy and you can feel the music and the movement.
WW: It’s full of Shankar playing.
AR: Yes. Yes.
WW: Yeah. It is.
AR: Can you explain the meaning of this black dot which one will see in Whiteley’s work continuing throughout for our audience because some people might be curious.
WW: It’s a kind of mind thing. The black dot and the thought bubbles. These are from cartoons. Thought bubbles. It’s all coming from the mind and it’s the mystery of the mind. Why somebody like Shankar does what he does as distinctly different to thousands of other sitar players why he’s so much better than everybody else. The power of talent really intrigued Brett all his life. He didn’t really understand his own so much. It was kind of a mystery. Why is it like that? Why do I do things better than other people?
AR: We turn the corner and we have a wall of heads, and they’re portrait drawings by Brett from various different times. Some of them are people he knew intimately, and some of them are people he met and who are quite famous. People he saw, or aspired to, or was fascinated by for whatever reason, their creativity, and some people maybe more anonymous.
There’s one work here, where we’ve got a whole bunch of heads and we can recognise a few people straight away.
AR: There’s Robert Helpman, there’s Francis Bacon, Martin Sharp.
WW: No, Richard Neville.
AR: Richard Neville, Richard Neville. Can you talk about this work and also the hand of Brett himself coming in, which is something you’ll see a lot in his drawings and paintings, where he brings himself into the picture making it. Do you remember when this work was made?
AR: Tell us about why he decided to do a very large presentation drawing of these heads?
WW: Well, he often did things like that, but sometimes they’d be mish-mashed together from little sketches and then glue them all on, so they were basically collaged. You can see this one’s had some quite radical changes made to it. But he just decided to do 10 heads or 12 heads or 12 birds or something or other.
AR: Are they all identifiable? Are some of them-
WW: No, some of them are-
AR: Types or rather-
WW: Yeah, some of them are types. That’s actually Arkie.
AR: With the hat?
WW: From a photograph of Arkie with the hat.
WW: Yeah, so some of them I know, but that’s just a boy. Probably an Italian boy or a Greek boy or something he had seen in Italy or Greece or somewhere. Francis, we know.
AR: One of the things that comes through, for me, is a feeling of very great psychological insight. They’re good portraits, and some of them are on scrappy bits of paper and they’re not necessarily always the kind of thing that would have been exhibited or very public. Some of them are and some of them aren’t. Can you talk to me a little bit about the place of portraiture within Whiteley’s work? Was it something that he would turn to at particular times? Was it something he did when he was captivated by a face or was it something that he wanted to do to remember people?
WW: I don’t think he does them to remember people so much. He probably used photography more for that. There’s always another element. That guy there was in the Chelsea Hotel, Charlemagne, that’s in Africa. These are all, that’s self-portrait, and that’s David Sylvester, I think.
WW: Who we knew.
WW: But I don’t think Brett did that from life. It was an afterthought. Just thinking about David Sylvester, probably in relation to Francis Bacon, and he’d just do a head thing. So it’s not even an attempt to be that accurate, physically, but certainly psychologically, yeah. You’re right.
AR: We have these two heads of Joel, who was probably one of his closest friends.
AR: And these were made at a time when Joel was very unwell.
WW: Joel was dying.
AR: He was. And he … dealt with that by making lots of portraits. Can you tell us a little bit about this series of portrait heads of Joel Elenberg that Brett made … at this very emotionally fraught time?
WW: Well, that’s what they are. It’s Brett expressing his grief, you know? When Joel actually died in Bali, I mean, Brett just kind of held him in his arms and sang to him. You know? And he made those drawings of Joel, really on the deathbed, you know. And they’re tragic drawings, and they’re quite shocking in a way, but … Joel was okay with his bald head and things. You know, he didn’t mind. He was a beautiful looking man, Joel Elenberg, but before he lost all his hair he was like a Gypsy, you know, like long curly hair and a beard. But it brought out something very … egg like and kind of pure, you know, with his bald head. But he was dying. And it was a tough time. Tough time.
I mean, we just all lived through it. You know. And then Anna and Zahava came back into Joel’s life, because they had separated before. But they came back into Joel’s life in Bali, and Diana, his girlfriend at the time, so we were all there together. You know, living every moment with Joel. You know, it’s just extraordinary, but in a way, better than it happening away from you. You know, you were with him, and you could support him and just be … and he stayed, he just stayed amazing ‘til the end.
AR: The drawings feel very emotionally honest and raw to me, I think, and … was drawing something that helped him get through that time, or was it just what you were saying about him having to work all the time, and it’s just a way of him-
WW: Well, drawing or working was just, you know, that’s what it is. He’s an artist, that’s what he does. That’s his job. So that’s what he did.
WW: I mean, he could’ve tried to write music or sing songs, but I mean, he sang a song to Joel that was different, you know. This is what Brett did.
AR: … Brett puts himself into his own pictures, a lot, and here we have two drawings done in a quasi-Asian calligraphic style.
Brett hadn’t been to Asia much, or experienced much of Asian art apart from what he’d seen in books, I imagine.
WW: Yeah, of course.
Well, books, and exhibitions, and museums.
AR: And in these works, he’s putting himself as an artist from that tradition, including this rather silly and joyful self-portrait after some bottles of wine.
Talk to us a little bit about that aspect of world art that captured him. What was it about the calligraphic line, the drawing with the brush that interested him?
WW: Same thing that captured Paris, you know, with the shows from Japan.
And obviously, Vincent and Gauguin. And anybody else who was influenced by first seeing Japanese woodblock prints and drawings with a calligraphy brush.
Immediately, completely changed the Western view of art. Well, Brett was no different to them.
When he started to draw like this, it was because he acquired some calligraphy brushes. And then set out to use them.
And with the same attitude as a … any of the calligraphists in Japan or China would have done, was if it didn’t work, you got to zen drawings with it, a calligraphy brush. They work or they don’t.
You can’t rub them out. Correct them. You’ve got to … You can’t even rag off the paint, you’ve got to tear them up, and get rid of them.
So, he was pretty good at that. I mean, we’re looking around this studio right now, there’s a lot of things that are done with a calligraphy brush. And it is very different to something done with a pen and ink.
It’s a very different way of doing things. That drawing was done because at the time, he’d borrowed from me, and there’s a photograph of him, a beautiful Chinese embroidered coat that I’d bought at an auction in London. And he was wearing it.
Greg Weight’s taking the photograph of him in the studio at the Gasworks, wearing that coat. Sitting on the floor drawing, that’s why it looks so Asian.
But normally, you know … That’s because of that.
AR: Dressed in that …
WW: No, he wasn’t pretending-
AR: … costume?
WW: … to be a Japanese person, or not. He didn’t actually go to Japan. He didn’t really like Asia all that much.
He found the heat difficult, you know, in the sense of being there for long periods of time.
He always got stared at a lot, because of his hair, and his … the look of him. Which, you know, he both did … you know, anyway. But he certainly revered Hokusai, and any of the great Chinese and Japanese artists that existed.
He and Martin Sharp had that in common again.
But then so did Vincent, you know? So that was a connection. For a lot of people.
As was Arthur Rimbaud. With Nolan, and everybody. Everybody picked up on the French symbolists I suppose, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Lautreamont, at the same time, really. And they got, kind of, re-elevated. And Dylan, of course, got into those things.
It was current rather than … It was something that was in the air. As was the Christie thing, at the time. It was something without seeking, it was actually happening.
AR: That’s interesting.
The thing that a lot of people will think about when they think of classic Whiteley drawings is a great sense of fluidity and ease of line. And I think that comes in with this work, using a brush.
AR: When does he start to open up more with his drawing? Is it through discovering these materials or this way of making pictures or is it something that’s more subtle as it emerges?
WW: How do you mean open up though?
AR: From some of the drawings earlier on. If we just look at these portraits for example.
AR: Some of the drawings are quite dense, they’re quite concentrated. Very beautiful, very subtle. But when we get to this slightly more loose line, if you like, in the calligraphic works and as we move beyond into the works we see at the end of this room where we have images of trees, of rivers, of boulders, of the landscape. For many people that’s the Whiteley that they know. Is it something that he came to via this Asian aesthetic? Or is it a combination?
WW: I think it is a combination. I think it depends on the size of the work you’re working on. That sense of, you know, like a big willow drawing like that. Can obviously be much freer in a way. It either has to work or it doesn’t. This big painting is obviously influenced by Japanese screens to a large degree. This bit and this bit were done quite separately and this was added.
AR: In the middle, the middle pane.
WW: In the middle, yeah. As in where you wanted to make it complete as a painting and he often did that, worked on panels rather than worked on things, and then joined them to-
AR: You said that Brett tended not to work en plein air like many landscape artists do, but the feeling I get from these four small drawings of the landscape to the right of the big painting here is that there is a real sense of the immediacy of being there in that landscape west of the Divide. Why do you think that is?
WW: Because we lived there. That Carcoar, Oberon, which is which all of these ones are, as we were living, we borrowed a house from a friend who loaned us a house very nicely, and it was right next door to a guy called Warwick Armstrong, who’d been to school with Brett in Bathurst. Returning to that area was very much a return to the, first of all the Bathurst area, but Carcoar, Oberon is very different, because of the rock formations that come up out of the ground, and we loved it. We had our dogs, and we lived up there. Friends would come up and stay with us. We’d play cards at night, and do all kinds of things, so we were just living there. That’s why it’s like everyday life. Once again, it’s everyday life. He’s just completely inspired by what’s in front of him. He loved the area. All those river pictures and things come out of there.
AR: And the boulders.
AR: The Australian landscape is a subject that captivated him from very early on, probably experiencing it as a young boy, but also through the work of his idols, such as Lloyd Rees who also made pictures of this part of the world.
WW: Well Bathurst he did. Yeah. Not Carcoar but Bathurst.
AR: As we turn the corner, we come to one of the subjects that Brett loved, and that was the nude. We have some drawings here of you, on the beach, in your bikini, reading. We have some images of nudes for sculpture, with some sculptures in the middle of the room. And then we have this marvellous drawing, Solita. Let’s start with the drawings of you, Wendy. You were just on holidays at the beach?
WW: Yeah, Whale Beach.
AR: And while you were enjoying the sun, enjoying your holiday, you’re being drawn from behind. Was this an experience that you were well used to by now? Being observed all the time and drawn at your various activities?
WW: I think … You know, I think I’m just doing my own thing. Yeah, I don’t remember really very often consciously posing. You know? They’re pretty rapid, those kind of drawings, so it’s not like, you know, in the studio sometimes if you were a model working for an artist, you’d have to be there for hours and hours and hours and not move too much, or return to a situation while they figured out how to do it. He’d figured out pretty much what he wanted to do, anyway, by then. You know, how to deal with a human form, particularly. I mean, in my case, mine. And even … I mean, in this one Arkie is there, too, I think, isn’t she?
AR: Yes, she’s bending over in the shower.
AR: We have a group of sculptures called Her, and they’re made out of bits of wood that have suggested the form. And behind them on the wall we have these studies, where we can see it’s very clearly studies for sculpture. In fact, they even have plinths involved. Tell us a little bit about how these sculptures came about, and how the drawings relate to them. Are the drawings before the sculpture is made? Are the drawings after the sculpture is made? Or are they completely separate?
WW: They’re together. They’re done at the same time. The sculptures, these wooden ones, because first of all you need to find the wood. And it was always Mangrove, because, as he said, it was like carving butter. He made an attempt to work with Joel once on a piece of marble and just said, “Jesus, I’m not doing that.” Any more than he particularly wanted to make his own pots, he just thought that as tedious. Let someone who can do that, and then I’ll paint them, you know?
He wasn’t going to knock himself out doing that. So, the sculptures themselves are usually, depending on what he can find, as far as getting a tree, and so that’s what he’d do.
AR: They have the feeling of exercises. Exercises in working out an idea, or exercises in doing a form. Would you say that would be correct to say that?
WW: Well, they’re thought bubble ideas, but at the same time, they have to work as a drawing. So, you know, it’s a double edged thing. Of course, everything he did was kind of like a thought bubble for something else. And in a way, I see most of Brett’s work as being self-portraiture. Even the birds some of them, he identified so clearly and so strongly with birds and dogs and things. He saw himself as each of these things. And so you get an element that’s something of him which I suppose is what makes them different to anybody else’s drawings of birds or animals.
AR: This is a major drawing, called Solita, of a young woman from Fiji, and it’s a drawing that’s been modified around the head. Tell us about Solita. Who was she?
WW: She was a young Fijian girl, that lived in the village next door to where we were. It was a big village, and then, we were about half a mile away from the village, in a wooden hut. No electricity, no running water, and a separate bure for cooking, which was a thatched hut. All the kids used to come and stare at us, all day, until the chief of the village got really pissed off, and I got sick of being stared at all day. But we had music on battery radio … on a battery CD player thing, tape player, and they’d want to hear that, and stuff.
But they’d stand there for hours and they’d just stare at you. They have absolutely no sense of privacy. If you avert your eyes, then you’re being private. But they’d just stare at us, as though we were zoo animals, or something. And I got fed up with it one day, and they got told off, and I think a couple of them even got a bit of a beating from the chief.
They were pretty rigidly run, the villages, then, like they used to be in Bali. Each village would have their own … They’d have their chief, and things. It was before everything started to fall apart, because everybody wanted a radio and all the things we had, even then. So, it all started to fall apart. She was just a young girl. She wasn’t actually naked. She never was naked as that, but that’s just part of it. She looks quite pregnant in that, and she wasn’t that, but she was a lovely young Fijian girl. I had that drawing in London for years.
AR: Did he come back to redraw the head? We found a photograph of this drawing without that, there … It had changed.
WW: Did you? Well, then, he did, obviously.
AR: Did he do that a lot?
WW: No, not much, not with charcoal. Not with anything, really. Painting, maybe.
AR: So, once he did something, he moved on?
WW: Drawing-wise, yes.
AR: Next to Solita we have a drawing that’s made in homage to a very famous painting by Lloyd Rees and Brett once said that when he saw Lloyd’s work, he saw the body in the landscape which he’s sure Lloyd didn’t, maybe he did, I don’t know.
WW: No he didn’t.
AR: But for me the way that the landscape is drawn seems very close to the drawing of Solita, this sort of beautiful flowing line. The colours as well. How sustained do you think Lloyd’s influence was on Brett? Was it something about Lloyd that he carried through the whole of his life or was it this affection for somebody who’d really shown him what art could be at an early age?
WW: Well, I mean those landscapes of Lloyd Rees’, they’re kind of humanising or amorphising of the early abstractions of Brett was at its strongest then, and he carried that with him all through his life. In that sense he carried him, but it wouldn’t have gone back to Lloyd Rees in the same way as he’d done 30, 40 years earlier and seen him with the eyes that he saw them with then. He saw what he saw with Lloyd straight away. That’s the way he saw them. Then seeing the landscape, it’s so obvious now to people when it’s been said, but Lloyd just never thought of it like that.
AR: We have two drawings here of women from Africa. One is a mother and the other one is slightly more mysterious. As Brett travelled and experienced places, he did do drawings like this where he would draw drawings of characters or types or people he’d come across. Do you remember when these works were drawn?
WW: Yeah. Yeah because we only went to Africa once and it was on … the trip was going to Harare in the end, I was chasing after a Rimbaud but we went through Johannesburg and then into Kenya, and went on the safari thing and so he was drawing all the time that was happening, and so we actually saw those African animals and people and met people and, the thing’s also saw how ugly South Africa was at the time and things like that.
You know it was strange kind of thing but we were … the intention was to head for Harare, which we did. We went to Addis first, and he was actually drawing in a nightclub in Addis Ababa and it was just before Haile Selassie he got thrown out and the communist government took over in there and Addis was full of black power people. It was quite weird and they felt very threatened by Brett drawing in this nightclub and came up and started questioning him what he was doing and things. So that’s one of the few times I remember Brett actually drawing and he was just drawing in a notebook, it wasn’t like making a major drawing and people being really suspicious of why he was doing it but then we moved out of Ababa and went by train to Harare and lived there again for a couple of months in a brothel because there wasn’t anywhere else to stay.
I had to burn the mattress and get another one because it was full of bed bugs but the hookers weren’t supposed to exist of course at all but they did, were very, very sweet women actually. They loved Arkie.
AR: And they were happy to be drawn?
WW: They didn’t mind. They didn’t mind. They were intrigued. They hadn’t seen this before.
AR: We move into this next room and we come into a different type of landscape culminating at the end of the room in this suite of works inspired by Van Gogh. Let’s talk about this suite of six drawings here in the middle of the room. Can you tell us something about this body of work, and it is a body of work. It’s six individual drawings that are meant to be seen together, and they have this motif within them of a radiating sun sort of shape. Explain this to our visitors.
WW: Well, this series here in the middle, these six individual drawings, that’s what you mean, isn’t it?
WW: You don’t mean all of those.
WW: No, just those. Yeah, well, that’s the way he put them.
WW: They’re smaller drawings and they were done individually, obviously. It’s all based on waves, done, handled in varying ways. There’s quite a few paintings that go with those as well, including one called Thebe’s Revenge, and everything. Some of the paintings are kind of a bit more influenced by the Vincent works, actually, than some of the others.
But, they’re all themed by waves, and this is just moves of the scene, moves of the waves, and each one has got a slightly different technical approach. Sometimes, it’s calligraphic, more like that, but then you get these kind of lines that are done with, not with a brush, with a calligraphy brush, but with a much tighter form. And ‘etc…’ at the end means that, there’s other ways. There are other ways. This is all leading to the idea of another way of looking at Vincent, so this is the beginning of that idea of actually taking that on board. It terrified him, actually, but it was something he felt he had to do.
AR: He was quite early for that. We’re a bit more used to appropriation or the idea of that now.
WW: Absolutely. And we were more used to it having been in New York for that period.
AR: I look some of these radiating, pulsating lines and I’m brought to the symbolists in these artists who were, again, doing a bit what, looking for another way of seeing the world or understanding the world. To the right of this suite of six works, we have another group of works also about waves. They’re about waves and they’re also a little bit about the art of Japan, and then they’re sort of leading into those works about Vincent van Gogh, and of course, there are those connections which we’ve spoken about Vincent’s interest in Japanese prints.
WW: And the influence it had on his work.
AR: The big drawing at the very end, the atomic landscape. It’s based on Vincent’s wonderful drawings. With these very distinctive ways of hatching and mark making on the sheet, but blown up with this black dot motif that Brett’s put in in a Japanese style presentation or scroll-like presentation. How influential or how interesting did Brett find Vincent’s drawings? Was that something that was interesting to him?
WW: I think it must have been about 1962. I’m not exactly accurate, but we saw, the only time I’ve seen this and Brett too, an enormous exhibition of Vincent’s drawings. I think it was in Basel and we were amazed. So from that he developed in his head this dot-dash theory that Brett had that Vincent worked either with a dot or with a dash for his drawings. Also with the paintings. And so that’s the dot one. And the dash one is Starry Night, the bigger one. So that’s the dash.
And then there’s the double-ended arrow which means the thing. And he was intrigued also with Vincent’s desire to be a minister in the beginning and his late start. Deeply involved with Vincent but didn’t really show much of an influence of Vincent until he did this exact homage again to Vincent.
And having done that I think he surely got it out of his system a bit. The absolute, I think he decided it didn’t bring him any closer to understanding why Vincent was Vincent, but it probably brought it closer to understanding why he was himself. I don’t know. All that matters in the end is what the image produces for us. ’Cause we’re the other … I mean, as the viewers, we’re the other side. There’s no point in making any of this stuff without an audience.
AR: No. None.
AR: On the other side of this room, we’ve got animals. We’ve got animals all the way from Regent’s Park Zoo in the ’60s right through to images of Sense, his little dog from the studio. Images of birds, images of monkeys. You talk about animals and Brett and how Brett sometimes saw himself in animals. What was the thing about animals that captivated Brett and made him want to make pictures of them?
WW: Well first of all, visually they’re amazing things, that’s one thing. Not all of them but most of them. When we lived in London, the thing with animals really started, I mean apart from his love of dogs, which he always had dogs as a kid, so did I. We both loved dogs and we always had, as a family we always had two little dogs. Going through varying ones and some of those ones, Reason of, or Sense or Reason, there were earlier versions of that called Bag and Boo and things, but they all end up with the same. They were actually facsimiles of each other as animals. They were always little dogs.
But he loved dogs, okay, but Regent’s Park Zoo, we started going to Regent’s Park Zoo all the time and he started drawing there and made that series of prints, you know, there. So it was two reasons to go there. One it was a great place to go, but that’s where he first saw hummingbirds, and they keep reappearing, because they were these amazing little jewels flicking around. Incredible things, with their wings that go so fast you can’t even see them, you know, they’re extraordinary things. So once again, he’s pulling from life. There was a Hoolock gibbon in a cage there that used to go absolutely crazy when Brett went into the monkey house at the zoo. I think it hated Brett. It didn’t like his hair or something, but it would start screaming and going around.
So that was, you know, once again, there was a Tasmanian tiger which he drew, in the zoo, yeah that’s right. And you know, he liked these kind of animals - that one, and the gibbon and things like that, the duality principle that Brett always went on about with human beings and with animals too. Which I firmly believe as well, you know-
AR: Some of these animals had the capacity for aggression and-
WW: Yeah, aggression and-
AR: And being entirely wild, even in captivity.
WW: And good people can have a moment of evil from time to time. Or bad behaviour. We’re all capable of it given the right circumstances. And as much as we might get very … you know, judgemental about human behaviour, and hopefully think you would never do it, but there’s the possibility there. So you have to have some understanding. And sometimes it’d just be sheer recognition of something about the animals that was so like us, you know, people say you shouldn’t do that with animals, but I think there is something in that. And that’s something to do with the Buddhist idea of the shared spirit in all living creatures. And you could come back as an ant if you don’t-
AR: Watch what you’re doing.
WW: Watch what you’re doing.
AR: As we move beyond the animals, we come to a wall with some late landscapes, landscapes of Australian subjects and of European subjects. For me, the lyricism of these drawings and the beauty that comes through these drawings is palpable. I find them rather … For me, they seem like the drawings of a very experienced hand and eye, but also as somebody who loves what he’s drawing. Talk about landscape for Brett later in life, and these drawings in particular.
WW: Well, I think you’re right about them being an affection. He had an affection for what he was doing. I think that’s absolutely there. They’re not about the troubled nature of humanity, or the difficulty of life, or any of that stuff. Even the difficulty of one’s own personal life. They are simply a celebration of beauty. Now, in this day in age, that has a tendency to be criticised because it’s not political and it’s not shocking people and it’s not doing that, but he had a longing to be able to just produce the beauty. Poor old Matisse never got forgiven for saying the stuff about the comfortable arm chair and he’s been denigrated for so long, but it’s such rubbish to denigrate somebody for saying that as though there’s something wrong with beauty. Without the beauty you can’t see the ugliness. Without the ugliness you don’t see the beauty.
It’s part of that same thing. Landscape often is just that. A beautiful landscape is something that is there for everybody. Which is why the garden is so important or being able to just switch off that terrible thing in your head that’s worried about this, that and the other thing and whether you can pay the bills. Just celebrate a sunset or wave or that freedom. That’s the only freedom we have is when we’re not thinking about how we are. What we’re doing. And these drawings are celebrations of those ones I think. Where you’re not worried about something else. These are celebrations of the kind of magic that’s there already and there is nothing to do with you in a way. All you can try to do is try and express it and love it.
AR: We have a long wall here of works from a very particular series, which is a task that Brett set himself of living in a place, Paris, and making a work a day. Some of these he made while he was in Paris. Some he made in the studio afterwards. But they were all expressing a very particular vision of a place that he had a great affection for through its architecture, but also through some of its personalities. Had Brett set himself projects in this way before?
WW: Well, the Vincent thing I suppose you’d call setting himself a project. Most exhibitions were a project in themselves, and he had those on a regular basis. But this particular Paris thing was about trying to return to an earlier time in his life, off the drugs. You know? So it is an attempt to stay off the drugs for a period of time and, you know, it didn’t work in the end. But, you know, that’s what he was trying for at the time.
So, he set himself a task every day, to keep himself busy. Being in Paris was a good way of … He didn’t know anybody that sold drugs in Paris, so it’s a good place. It’s called “geographical,” going on a geographical, which means you change where you are but you take your same head with you. You pack your same suitcase. But it did help, I think, for a while in Paris. I think it’s seen. I mean, some of those drawings are remarkable, and he set himself a particular number of drawings. Some of them he didn’t do in Paris, and a few of them, and he’s actually come back here and cut up some other drawings and changed them, basically, and called them Giacometti’s Studio, being one of them, which is not in here. I think it was sold. But it was one of those drawings.
The rest of them are people he admired as well. Matisse, Colette, Balzac, all of those people he admired. There’s a Hooker.
AR: We’ve got Josephine Baker down here.
WW: That’s right. We never saw Josephine Baker but she’s certainly a very strong Paris person, so that’s why it’s indicated that you’re watching Josephine Baker on a television set.
AR: At the end of this room, we find ourselves in Sydney, in the studio, in an environment which has become quintessentially Whiteley, Lavender Bay. We’ve got a central painting of him in his studio, surrounded by objects including drawings, making a self-portrait drawing, complete with hair. We also have other images of the studio looking out through the window, towards the harbour. We also have a slightly darker image of his experience of the studio, where he’s taking drugs. The studio, and looking out through the window of the studio, into the green and the blue of Sydney, is a very beautiful and calming image. What was the Lavender Bay studio space, or the Lavender Bay home, for Brett, and how was that expressed through these different views of that place?
WW: The Lavender Bay works, of course, is both studio and home. I don’t think, had we not found Lavender Bay by visiting a friend, Rollin Schlicht who had the bottom half, we wouldn’t have stayed in Australia. I think we probably would have packed up and gone back to London. We still had the studio in London. I think Brett had had enough of London, but we would have found somewhere to go back to.
We couldn’t go back to Fiji, but we found Lavender Bay, and fell in love with Lavender Bay. The house itself, we had one floor for a while, so one room of that became Brett’s studio for a long time. Then he required another studio, because he just needed the space. And he did Portraits and other emergencies, and Alchemy, and things, around at the Gasworks. That building got pulled down, so then he came back to the studio, before that was pulled down, back to the house studio.
We always had two studios, during this period. He had one at the house, and there’s a lot of Robert Walker photographs of him working downstairs on the Lavender Bay works, but the view … This particular part is actually the living room. By this stage, this is when we’ve taken all the walls out and everything else, it’s not officially the studio part of the house. That was downstairs. But he’d often work upstairs, and, me just lying on the bed like that, I’d be too busy to be doing that for very long. But it just indicates my presence. The tabletops … I think it’s got to be my pearls or something, that he’d given me for my birthday once, cigarettes, usually, sometimes an indication that drugs are about. He’s quite open about it.
AR: I’m interested in particular in this motif, of looking through the window outside and that’s partly due to the way the house is constructed. But it’s also something that we see on the wall around the corner here. We’ve got some more images of him using this central device that’s like a window frame looking through or looking over a balcony into a garden. Gardens are a very special thing for you. What were gardens and these sorts of cultivated lush landscapes for Brett. Was it beauty?
WW: Yeah, just beauty. Just celebrating beauty. That rainy thing, also atmosphere. The Lavendar Bay thing, you’ve got grey ones, you’ve got blue ones, you’ve got cream ones. You’ve got changing light ones, you’ve got orange. The bright sunset ones like orange, big orange Lavender Bay one. The window itself exists, they’re those old fashioned kind of windows, but the house itself would be meaningless unless it was where it was. It was the fact that when you’d looked out from the house, I mean the interior of the house is now very special, but then it was looking out from the house that was special. Otherwise it was just a grotty old federation house until we radically changed it, radically altered it.
AR: We’ve finished walking through the show. Thank you very much for walking through it with me.
WW: And thank you very much for getting it all together. I don’t think we’re gonna have a falling out.
AR: I think we’re gonna be okay.
WW: I think we’ll be okay.