Menzies Art Brands



Walk at Ubud 1979 is painted by a master of the exotic and sensuous tropical landscape. It is one of a select group of spirited Balinese paintings that Brett Whiteley produced in response to his time in Bali during the 1970s.

The attraction of island paradises such as Bali, Tahiti and Fiji increased dramatically over the 19th and 20th centuries. Artists and writers flocked to Bali between the two world wars. The development of hybrid forms of Western and Eastern art by artists, such as the well-known German Walter Spiers (1845-1894), enticed many others to follow. Cheap living, relative freedom and the acceptance of people engaged in creative pursuits created a sense of community in which Western artists sensed they would thrive. For them, the Balinese landscape and people represented the epitome of the Western ideal of an untrammelled tropical paradise.1

Important works such as Walk at Ubud mediate Whiteleys love of the tropical landscape through his admiration of the French master Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). Gauguin famously made Tahiti his base after leaving Paris in 1891 and produced some of the most compelling images of village life by a Western artist. Although we now question the veracity and intent of some of these images, particularly those of young women, Gauguins search for a seemingly simpler way of life and his mission to escape the excesses of European civilisation and everything that is artificial and conventional would have resonated with Whiteley. Eighty years on, Whiteley was looking to escape from the pressures and frustrations of the urban metropolis.

Whiteley imagined a blissful place of retreat while living in the infamous Chelsea Hotel in New York. Just prior to him leaving New York for Fiji, Whiteley expressed immense relief in a letter to his mother: We were born into hell and have pressed 10 conscious years all of us, into getting around it, getting into it, trying to salvage, trying to salivate! And all we have apart from wrinkles and yellow tongues is a kind of speedy humour about survival. I am glad to leave...2

Fiji offered a tantalising, albeit brief, period of solace. Whiteley arrived in 1969. He spent a couple of months alone and, after much urging, was joined by Wendy and their daughter Arkie. One of the most important works produced from that experience, The Green Mountain (Fiji) 1969, from the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, laid the basis for what was to follow in Bali. It was a clear homage to Paul Gauguin and his 19th century ideals. Gauguin said of his Tahitian paintings that he had been eager to suggest a luxurious and untamed nature, a tropical sun that sets aglow everything around it ... the equivalent of the grandeur, depth, and mystery of Tahiti when it must be expressed in one square meter of canvas.3

In 1974 Whiteley made the first of his trips to Bali. Donald Friend (1914-1989) recorded in his diary on the 24 May: I believe Brett Whiteley is in Bali he came with Bert Tucker and Clifton Pugh and all their wives and a doctor friend.4 A work entitled Bali 19745 was inscribed four days after this diary entry and is the only known painting from Whiteleys first visit. The rich yellows and greens of Bali bear a clear visual relationship with The Green Mountain (Fiji), as does the inclusion of a centralised organic motif and elongated palm trees. Whiteley revels in the exotic colours and forms and experiments with recognisably tropical motifs such as the representation of coral and foliage and the staining of the picture surface with dribbles of diluted paint.
By this time Bali had become an important stopover on the so-called hippie trail to London and in the 1960s and 70s, a roll-call of well-known Australian artists visited or made Bali their home, including, most notably, Donald Friend, along with Tim Storrier (born 1949), Ian van Wieringen (born 1944) and John Olsen (born 1928). Brett Whiteley returned to Bali twice in 1978, spending June in Bali, August in New Caledonia and September back in Bali. During those two months, he made sketches and drawings that laid the basis for paintings with Balinese-inspired subjects that were produced in his Sydney studio over the next two years.

Although dated 1979 on the reverse, it is consistent with Whiteleys working methods that Walk at Ubud was begun when he visited Bali in 1978 and finished the following year upon his return to Sydney. As Wendy Whiteley has observed, Whiteley did not have a studio in Bali, so the Bali paintings were not produced on site but back in his studio at Lavender Bay. In these paintings Whiteley drew upon his memories of Bali, as well as his immediate surroundings including the garden and water view of Sydney and other paintings and drawings that he had already completed.6

Walk at Ubud relates to one drawing that we know was produced on location. The drawing was made spontaneously on a piece of brown paper that Whiteley had taken out of a road-side bin. Both drawing and painting feature the same post and rail fence and heavy tropical-inspired undergrowth and foliage.7 Walk at Ubud also shares a similar compositional focus with a painting dated 1976-78, View from Hotel Window, Bali. In both works we see a similar arc that depicts a walking track or road. The highly keyed palette is almost Edvard Munch-like in its intensity. There is an intoxicated concentration on the beauty of the strange but alluring plants, including the palm trees and lush foliage depicted in the foreground and along the track.

Furthermore, Walk at Ubud incorporates the peculiar rounded shape of the distant hills from The Green Mountain (Fiji). Each of these works by Whiteley affirm the sort of spirituality that Gauguin had found in Tahiti and Vincent Van Gogh in Arles. The intense green hues contrasted against the golden rays of the disc-like sun is a common factor to each artist. The Whiteleys house and studio in Lavender Bay are also referenced through pictorial elements and motifs he saw daily. The characteristically tall palm trees that appear in his tropical landscapes are the same ones that consistently appear in his paintings of Sydney Harbour. Similarly, the motif of the window, one that is common in the Sydney Harbour works, permeates through Walk at Ubud and Whiteleys other Balinese paintings, drawings and prints.

A love of nature, simplicity and natural forms shines through in Brett Whiteleys paintings of Bali. The sun illuminates, penetrates and animates the surrounding landscape, acting as a positive and enhancing symbol of life. The focus is on the here and now in Walk at Ubud with the coming of the day, the pervading feeling of warmth, the luxuriance of the tropical garden, the calming effect of the distant mountain views, endearing little puffy clouds that hover overhead and meandering lines. This is a picture dedicated to the immersion of ones self in nature and a landscape predicated on sensation and desire.

1. For an account of Balis attraction for Australian artists see James, R., Strangers in paradise, Australian artists in Bali: 1930s to now, McClelland Sculpture Park + Gallery, Langwarrin, 2015. This research is currently being developed into a monograph
2. Quoted in A. Wilson, Brett Whiteley: Art, Life and the Other Thing, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2016
3. Adams, A., Paul Gauguin: His Palette, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1st edition, 2016
4. Hetherington, P., ed. The Diaries of Donald Friend, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 2006, p.331
5. Bali 1974, oil and collage on canvas board, 60.5 x 50.0 cm, private collection, Melbourne
6. Wendy Whiteley, in conversation with Rodney James, February 2018
7. Bus Stop in Bali 1980, pen and brush and brown ink on paper, Brett Whiteley Studio Collection, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Rodney James BA (Hons.) MA

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