Menzies Art Brands



In late 1960, at the age of twenty-one, Brett Whiteley moved to London. His arrival coincided with what curator Bryan Robertson described as the most auspicious moment in [the twentieth] century for the reception of Australian art by the English.1 In the decade between 1955 and 1965, London attracted all the leading exponents of Australian modernism: Arthur Boyd (1920-1999), Michael Johnson (born 1938), Sidney Nolan (1917-1992), Charles Blackman (1928-2018), Fred Williams (1927-1982), John Perceval (1923-2000), and Brett Whiteley.  As Blackman recalled, this brash coterie of expat Australian artists represented Quite a sum of forces of nature, of painting, from this country. And we all saw each other. Being there at that time, it was unique in history, I think.2

Whiteley wasted little time. In 1961, his Untitled Red Painting was acquired for the Tate, making him the youngest artist to enter its collection. In the same year, Whiteley was included in Bryan Robertsons pivotal exhibition of Recent Australian Painting at the Whitechapel Gallery. This would be succeeded by solo shows at the Matthiesen Gallery (1962) and the Marlborough Gallery (1964), two of the most prominent commercial venues for British contemporary art. Whiteley was distinguished by his precocious ambition, coupled with a prodigious talent for draughtsmanship. He successfully transcended the patronising stereotypes of Antipodean art to enter the mainstream of British modernism,3 becoming part of an irreverent New Generation that included the likes of David Hockney, Patrick Caulfield and Bridget Riley.4 Whiteleys ultimate mentor during the London years would be Francis Bacon the enfant terrible of British art, whom he met at an exhibition opening in 1961.

Whiteleys Drawing of a Man Drinking 1965 carries the spirit of that time. The subject of this work is believed to be a fellow patron at The Elgin, a boisterous pub close to Brett and Wendy Whiteleys flat in Ladbroke Grove.5 Whiteleys drinker is captured in still motion, raising a glass to quench his thirst. His bald head is enveloped in a swarm of tracery and cloudy pigment, revealing only the fleshy outline of his left ear. The drawings frenzied intensity is relieved by the bare negative space of the background and the figures striped clothing, rendered in thick brushstrokes of white on blue. It is also, of course, a drawing about drawing, as revealed by the artists clipped sketchpad in the foreground, and Whiteleys diligent note-to-self on the colouring of the central composition: this could be whiter.  

It was at The Elgin and other pubs in north London that Whiteley first heard of John Reginald Christie, the serial killer whose grisly crimes inspired a sequence of paintings and drawings from 1964-5.6 The Christie series coincided with a major transition in Whiteleys style, from abstraction to figuration; or what he termed specific form.7 Taking his cues from Bacon, Whiteleys Christie paintings juxtaposed shallow, rippling plains of colour with abstracted masses of contorted flesh.  The bald head, prominent ears and striped clothing in Drawing of a Man Drinking are reminiscent of Whiteleys celebrated Head of Christie 1964, a portrait of undiluted depravity. Elwyn Lynns evocative description of the Christie works, written when they were shown in Sydney in March 1966, could equally apply to the present work:

Whiteley likes to locate action in corners or on the edge, to leave whole areas empty, as though action always occurs on the brink of the bed-abyss. He loves dichotomy in technique: soggy stains are slapped with luscious impasto, lines of delicate strength circle swampy, amorphous areas His use of space is baffling and unique. This is not so much an artistic discovery, but an unfolding of his own way of seeing 8


1. Robertson, B., The London Years, in Pearce, B., Brett Whiteley: Art & Life, Thames & Hudson in association with the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1995, p.8
2. Shapcott, T., The Art of Charles Blackman, Andr Deutsch Limited, London, 1989, p.4
3. Hughes, R., The Shirley Temple of British Art?: Brett Whiteleys Splash in the Mainstream, The Bulletin, Sydney, 18 December 1965, p.41
4. Sutherland, K., Brett Whiteley: A Sensual Line 1957-67, Macmillan Art Publishing, Melbourne, 2010, p.114
5. Sutherland, K., Brett Whiteley: Catalogue Raisonn, Schwartz Publishing, Melbourne, 2020, vol.7, p.165
6. Brett Whiteley, quoted in Difficult Pleasure: A Film about Brett Whiteley, directed and produced by Don Featherstone, 1989
7. Sutherland, K., Brett Whiteley: A Sensual Line 1957-67, op. cit., p.88
8. Lynn, E., The Picture of Horror, The Australian, 12 March 1966, p.9

Catherine Baxendale








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