32. BRETT WHITELEY
Painted in the latter period of the artist’s life, Still Life in the Moonlight is not a typical Brett Whiteley painting, yet it says much about the artist. As with a good deal of his work, it can be read in largely autobiographical terms whilst referring to universal themes.
Still life pictures are part meditations. Many of Whiteley’s heroes produced them, including Van Gogh (1853-1890), Matisse (1869-1954), Picasso (1881-1973) and Whiteley’s mentor, Lloyd Rees (1895-1988). The natura morta genre is somewhat of an artistic rite of passage. Like those great artists before him, Whiteley explores the genre in a range of mediums, including the oriental-inspired, calligraphic and stylised ink on paper drawings for which he is renowned.
Simple objects visualised in inspired pictorial compositions, have the capacity to convey profound, symbolic meaning and elicit contemplation in artist and onlooker alike. Still life objects often inspire great creativity and become tantamount to the artist’s muse, possessing both dark sides and bright. In Still Life in the Moonlight Whiteley seems to capture this essence of creativity – the bright, enlightened moments set against those difficult and dark times. Barry Pearce writes, ‘it was Whiteley’s conviction that every imaginable mood conjured its opposite, and to him that state of affairs was an inevitable contract between art and life’.1
From about 1976, Whiteley began to focus on still life, developing an interest which, as Sandra McGrath enthuses, ‘would produce probably some of his most beautiful works’.2 McGrath also observes that his still life work, whilst ‘a natural development from the interiors’, also manifested from the antisocial tendencies of the artist. Whiteley had commented, ‘the still life thing only became real the more I wanted to be alone… It was the furthest thing from humans – inanimate objects.’3
Whiteley’s life around the time of this painting also holds relevance for its subject and meaning. It was painted following his triumvirate victory of the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes from the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1978, however it was also a personally traumatic period.4 His close friend, artist Joel Elenberg (1948-1980)who lived with Whiteley from 1979, was dying of lymphoma. During this period, Whiteley often drew and painted portraits of Elenberg. These raw, unadulterated depictions of terminal illness and the afflictions of chemotherapy attracted much criticism
In 1981 Whiteley moved his studio to Reiby Place, Circular Quay; however Still Life in the Moonlight may have been painted in Bali, where Elenberg died in 1980. It is dated around the same time as his ‘crucifixion’ portrait paintings of Elenberg, and whilst it does not feature in the Whiteley’s Life and death exhibition of 1983, it does comment on similar themes, namely the nature of death and the afterlife.5
Still Life in the Moonlight conveys a personal intimacy; the ominous dark brown and sepia hues of the background heighten the delicacy of the pale white petals framed in verdant greens, conveying their sensuous vitality. Here, Whiteley captures the elemental and majestic whilst symbolising death insidiously claiming the verve of life. Like others before him, he saw the objects of still life as a metaphor for human life picked too early, reaped in blossom and now, although still beautiful, in the throes of death.
Whiteley’s still life pictures also convey troubled psychological states and man’s inner world. In the polarities of light and dark colouration, Still Life in the Moonlight may also represent the duality of man’s persona – the opposites of human nature and the psyche. Although Bernard Smith considered Whiteley’s art egocentric and was appalled by his ‘incapacity for detachment’, it is this self-engagement which makes it so generally appealing.6 Whiteley’s occupation with the Warholian cult of personality was not merely about ‘self’, but taps into the zeitgeist of that time and man’s interminable propensity for self-absorption.
Certainly, what comes through with immediacy of thickly applied impasto is Whiteley’s love of paint and his appetite for the great traditions of art history. He seems to have found some personal solace in this genre even though his troubles and despair appear to surface in such pictures.
Edmund Capon, former Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and supporter of Whiteley, describes him as having had ‘extraordinary and intensely charismatic energy’ – qualities which seem to emerge in this painting.7 Pertinently, Whiteley once mused, ‘Art is the thrilling spark that beats death’ – and in a most poignant way, Still Life in the Moonlight is a painting which bears testimony to those words.
1. Pearce, B. and Klepac, L., Australian painters of the twentieth century, Beagle Press, Sydney, 2000, p.242
2. McGrath, S., Brett Whiteley, Sydney, Bay Books, 1979, p.185
4. Whiteley is the only artist to have been awarded all three prizes in the same year. He had also won the Archibald and the Sulman in 1976, and the Wynne Prize in 1977, and then again in 1984
5. See Whiteley, B., Life and death: a visual experience in opposites: 1983 - Brett Whiteley, exhibition catalogue, Melbourne: Australian Galleries, 1983
6. Smith, B., Australian painting 1788-1990, 3rd edition, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1995, p.390
7.Capon, “Afterword”, in Art Gallery of New South Wales, Brett Whiteley Studio, Sydney, AGNSW, 2007, p.175
Jacqui Cheney BBus(CSU), MA (Hons, Art History & Curatorship, ANU), PhD candidate (Art History and Curatorship, ANU)