Menzies Art Brands



The idiosyncrasies of Ken Whissons art have long deprived him of due recognition, but they are what make him one of Australias most intriguing practitioners today. Whissons importance to Australian visual culture has been affirmed in recent years by a major joint retrospective at Heide and Sydneys Museum of Contemporary Art in 2012,1 as well as his inclusion in the 2013 Australia exhibition at Londons Royal Academy.2 It was Robert Hughes, however, who perceived Whissons unique appeal as early as 1962, remarking in his typically back-handed way: Whissons work is always crude, and very often his drawing collapses altogether, but he has a vision, he is impelled to paint beliefs out of his system, and he knows where his images [] are heading.  This can be claimed for few painters in Australia.3 

Born in Lilydale, north east of Melbourne, in 1927, Whisson spent a brief but unhappy spell at Swinburne Technical School before enjoying the tutelage of Danila Vassilieff (1897-1958), Melbournes pre-eminent figurative expressionist.4 Through Vassilieff, Whisson formed loose acquaintances with Sidney Nolan (1917-1992) and Albert Tucker (1914-1999) during the 1940s and early 1950s, when the bohemian Heide Circle was in its ascendancy. The brooding, visceral quality of Whissons early works is attributable to all three artists, while Nolans emphasis upon spontaneity of execution encapsulated by his motto, let it fall was to be an enduring influence on Whissons creative practice.5

In 1977, Whisson departed Australia for good. Settling in Perugia, Italy, Whisson recalled that he immediately felt at home [] At last I was in a country where I wasnt expected to be like everyone else, and it wasnt strange to be a painter.6 Whissons familiarisation with his new setting coincided with a fundamental change in materials: where previously Whisson had painted with oils on board, his works thereon were largely executed on canvas.7 The permeability of canvas is such that it requires more extensive preparation than board alone, and Whisson observed to curator Michael Wardell that he could not work as fast or as vigorously, so that line came to dominate the composition.8 

The present work, All on Stage (1993), features all of Whissons most compelling visual traits. The horizon line has been jettisoned in favour of an unfixed and immersive perspectival approach; the houses dwarfed by a series of statuesque nudes. In spite of its basically rectilinear arrangement, the composition appears deliberately unbalanced, with lines skirting across the picture plane.9 Line is used to schematically describe, rather than to define, figures and objects. As voluptuous as the nudes on the left appear, they are devoid of weight or substance. Those on the right present as ghostly apparitions, faceless and grasping, their fleshiness corroded by the lines aggressively bisecting their human form. 

For Whisson, painting represents a mode of thought, rather than its product. As the artist revealed in relation to Jeans Farm of 1972-5, I sat down to paint this picture in my usual way of having as little in my mind as possible so that my mind can expand on the canvas so that they can move together, the mind and the canvas.10 Perhaps then, the title of All on Stage is an allusion to the performative aspects of Whissons technique. As is suggested by the paintings verso inscription Four or Five Houses and Five or Six Naked Citizens - Whisson makes a virtue out of ambiguity. In this sense, his paintings, in which all things are in flux but nonetheless connected, appear peculiarly well suited to our time.11        


1. Barkley, G. & Harding, L., Ken Whisson: As If, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2012

2. Artworks in Londons Royal Academy Show, Australia, The Australian, 18 September 2013

3. Hughes, R., Review: Troublesome Melbourne, Nation, 1962; in Murphy, B., Ken Whisson: Paintings, 1957-1985, Broken Hill City Art Gallery in association with the Australia Council and the Regional Galleries Association of New South Wales, Sydney, 1987, p.8

4. Grishin, S., Australian Art: A History, The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2013, p.495

5. Barkley, G. & Harding, L., Ken Whisson: As If, p.11

6. Murphy, B., Ken Whisson: Paintings, 1957-1985, p.13

7. Barkley, G. & Harding, L., Ken Whisson: As If, Education Resource, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 2012, p.7

8. McDonald, J., Ken Whisson and the Life of Forms, in Ken Whisson: A Survey, Lennox Street Gallery, Melbourne, 1990, p.6

9. Robert Nelson, Artist Tyres of Awful Melbourne, Age, Melbourne, 20 June 2012

10. Murphy, B., Ken Whisson: Paintings, 1957-1985, p.18

11. McDonald, J., Ken Whisson and the Life of Forms, p.11


Catherine Baxendale, B. Phil (Hons)









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