Brett Whiteley was one of Australia’s most exhilarating artists.
Some people didn’t like his work. Some people with excellent knowledge and appreciation of art think he was overrated.
Some didn’t like his life. Some believe his addictions conspired to squander his early promise.
But no-one doubts he was a burning brand in Australia’s art world for decades. He is represented profusely in all the major galleries and hangs luminously and expensively in many magnificent homes. At auction, his large and flamboyant canvases or tiny pretty pencils will always have bidders competing.
Many say his work, from spare and sweetly lined charcoals of nudes to whorls of tumultuous oils are the primary images in their minds when they think of Australian painters.
His life’s passions, which still hover around the pieces he leaves behind, deserved to be collected and examined and his definitive story told.
The Chronicler accepts the challenge
Ashleigh Wilson did not meet Whiteley in life.
It was only a few years ago that as Arts Editor of The Australian newspaper he was introduced to Wendy Whiteley, a resolute defender of Brett’s legacy.
Trust ensued and led to permission being given for the first ‘official’ biography. Four years of travel, interviews and head-down writing produced this book.
Previously, of course, there had been hundreds of articles and some books about the man.
John Wilson wrote a piece for the Australian Financial Review about growing up with Brett in Longueville. No-one else had those stories of that early part of his life.
In 1996, Frannie Hopkirk, Brett’s sister, published her memories of life with him in her warm and moving book entitled simply brett.
Ashleigh’s book is dispassionate but compassionate.
He goes about his work quietly and calmly: the early days of family, the crazy times, the fights, the drinking, the drugs, the clashes, the learning from notable artists in Europe, America and Australia, the triumphs, the accolades are all clearly recorded.
Pursuing the legend
His quarry is erratic and explosive, but the Chronicler tracks him methodically through the memories of others who ran ahead and shared the chase.
The book has several sections of coloured plates, lustrous Whiteley yellows, ultramarines and splashing whites, but also many black and white drawings and photos sitting comfortably inside the printed passages.
As he runs the course we ride alongside, not just glimpsing Whiteley’s images but also his words which are the threads caught on bushes that lead us on in hope of understanding the work of his restless hands.
While many stretches in the painter’s life were emotional, sensational, and even incomprehensible, Ashleigh rides steadily, gathering details and placing them carefully.
This is a masterful 400 pages.
There are quite a few artists, writers and musicians who recently lit our lives whom we hate for dying early. Selfishly we wish could hear their summations as they confront Old Age.
Brett Whiteley is surely one of them. His work will be discussed for decades, but this book means there may be no need for another chronicle of his life.
Art, Life and the Other Thing is published in hardback and e-book by Text Publishing.