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Beer bottle as totem

John Tranter reviews

«Brett Whiteley», Bonython Gallery, Victoria Street, Paddington, Sydney

Provenance: first published in The Union Recorder: The weekly newspaper of the University of Sydney Men’s Union: 1970. Transcribed by Corner Cottage Enterprises 2009, edited by John Tranter 2009.

See also “The artist seen as a young trendy” on this site, John Tranter’s 1979 review of «Brett Whiteley» by Sandra McGrath.

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Brett Whitely’s three-ring exhibition of paintings, sculptures, stuffed animals, flashing lights, poems, clocks, photographs, music, quotes from famous poets and philosophical reflections revolves in an eccentric orbit around a number of key preoccupations: what people do to their environment, what people’s environments do to them, where the artist stands in relation to his society, and just which set of muscles an artist can use to belabour those about him.


The two strongest ingredients in this melange are an ambiguously rendered social conscience and an unclear strand of mystical-aesthetic exploration. He tells us that an empty beer bottle is one of contemporary Australia’s totems (as if we didn’t know: shades of Barry Humphries); he tells us that he first tried LSD in 1969, with reportedly profound results; though the cryptic evidence he presents is hardly sufficient to suspend even the most credulous viewer’s disbelief.

Brett Whiteley: Gaugin (1968), detail.

Brett Whiteley: Gaugin (1968), detail.



The effectiveness of social comment comes from a number of things: truth, economy, wit, passion. Whitely attains to some of these qualities. His long travels overseas have given him a perspective that enables him to render the Australian (and American) environment in striking terms. His gaggle of collapsing chrome buildings on the edge of a vast red waste has an immediate appeal, though many of the points have been made before and more economically. Bruce Petty, with a few penstrokes on the back page of The Australian, is often far more deadly than the acres of Whitely’s frenzied surrealism manage to be.


There are odd pockets of what one can only describe as embarrassing banality: a heavy-handed portrait of a dark-skinned female’s eyes is repeated, the second time with a thin rim of red around the iris; the caption reads “Mary, aborigine prostitute after one year at the Cross”. A vast hymn to copulation, featuring some of the old Whitely power of line, is decorated with a tired collage of pin-up photos cut from magazines. One supposes, wearily, that some comment about the cheapening commercialisation of sex is being pushed, in that the “real thing” (graphically real it is) is handled with sympathetic line and colour, while the ersatz commercial product (but aren’t these paintings for sale?) is represented only by clumsy poses, nasty coyness and poor-quality photography.


Most of the paintings contain lines of handwriting, often of heavily philosophical intent. One section consists almost entirely of manuscript. Entitled “Raves”, these contain ideas such as: “Every Australian, when he self-afaces (sic) and looks inward to his centre, he finds – a cavity (sic), a traditionlessness, a state of stranded ennui”. (from “Rave no. 471”) And: “The most mysterious thing that God did was to invent Creation. As we cannot understand Creation, it would follow that any painting that cannot be understood (the best paintings in the world) then the artist at the moment of completion or abandonment of his picture is approximating the God state”. (from “Rave no. 472”). This mixture of dogmatism and conceptual blundering need not necessarily be a fault in a painter though fatal in one professing to be a thinker. Yet this tendency to overstate and to just miss the point seems to run through the conceptual understructure of the show as a whole.


In his earlier paintings (the Christie murder series in particular) Whitely had a simple enough moral structure to enable him to concentrate on the job of making the paint speak as powerfully as possible. The resulting impact, though owing a lot to Francis Bacon, had an individual authority that almost battered the viewer into a state of acceptance. It seems to me that the Bonython show, in attempting to push a series of messages via the medium of paint, chrome and feathers, has lost a considerable degree of force. The paintings are put into a subservient role too often and with too little [regard] for their integrity as structures, and the head of a confused but loud-voiced propagandist breaks the surface.


No-one walks out of a Whitely exhibition with a set of neatly-ordered responses, however. For example, half-way around the walls a group of five bird paintings stand out from the rest of the offerings. A sudden doubt creeps into the mind of the viewer: these paintings, stripped of social message and philosophical profundity, have an air of self-contained power and easy assurance. But are they a shade too “attractive”? Are they a little too easy to appreciate and like, because having less of importance to say? I’m still not sure about that one.

John E. Tranter

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