36. BRETT WHITELEY
‘People ask me 'why paint birds?' and I look at them dumbfounded! I’ve got no answer, except that they are the most beautiful creatures’. 1
Birds fuelled Brett Whiteley’s imagination and his love of the natural world. Herons, wrens, rosellas, owls and doves, to name a few, figure prominently as subjects for his major works. The Dove and the Moon 1983 is a classic example of Whiteley’s bird paintings. It was included in two important solo exhibitions in the same year it was made, featuring alongside other key bird images and sculptures that advanced ideas about tranquillity, perfection and hope.
The Dove and the Moon depicts a lone dove, two eggs, a nest and supporting branch (made from real sticks) enveloped by a panoramic night sky. The familiar arc of the crescent moon is clearly visible in the top right while stars twinkle comfortingly in the background. Delving deeper into this painting one can discover a complex raft of personal observations, historical associations, elaborate techniques and contemporary ideas.
Brett Whiteley had a life-long fascination with birds. He liked observing birds in their natural habitat as well as in zoos, despite them being a more artificial environment. As a young boy, Whiteley collected eggs and nests and enlisted others to help him. He was fascinated by the perfect shape of an egg and the industrious way in which nests were formed.
From reading and observation, Whiteley learnt that doves mate for life, males and females collaborate in nest-building and brooding and females almost always lay two eggs at a time. Widespread travel introduced the young artist to many varieties of the same birds. Back in Sydney in the 1970s and 80s, Whiteley became a frequent visitor to Sydney’s Taronga Zoo where he could observe at close hand the interaction between these revered birds and animals.
The complex history and fascinating symbolism of doves resonated with Whiteley from a youthful age. Doves represented love, devotion and care for the family in early Greek and Roman society. The dove was also the sacred animal of Aphrodite and Venus, the two respective goddesses of love and fertility. In Christian belief the dove has religious connotations of divine attribution and it has been used in Western art for centuries to represent the manifestation of the Holy Spirit: it is the dove that returns to Noah with an olive branch to signal the end of the flood. 2 The association of birds taking flight and the possibility of renewal was an apt metaphor for an artist who lived life on the edge.
Pablo Picasso’s (1881-1973) design using the dove for the emblem of the First International Peace Conference in Paris in 1949 became a widely used symbol for peace and created a new lexicon for modern artists. Picasso’s many drawings, prints and ceramics featuring doves to symbolise peace and goodwill are counterbalanced by the many standout works in Western art that feature the egg. This is most notable in the celebrated sculptures of Constantin Brâncuși (1876-1957), for whom the reduction of form and perfect egg-like ovular shape revealed important hidden truths.
Whiteley’s artistic interest in birds began in earnest with a sublime series of paintings and drawings he produced in Fiji during 1969. It extended through to prime examples from the late 1980s that were included in his 1995 retrospective exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Whiteley’s anti-war opus, The American Dream 1969, produced in New York, includes birds as observers to the debauchery of modern life. For the artist, birds came to symbolise the need to escape and to fashion a new life. After an intense period living in New York Whiteley did just that. He left the seething urban metropolis for the tranquil sanctuary of Fiji, a much-mythologised island paradise. He lived alone and painted happily there for several months, prior to being joined by his wife Wendy and their daughter Arkie.
The Fiji drawings and paintings celebrate the bounty of nature and the communal behaviour and elegant form of local birds. This included images of the fruit dove such as Orange Fruit Dove, Fiji 1969, which Whiteley considered as the most beautiful in the world. An alternative and more simple life with its own inherent beauty and state of innocence symbolised by birds became a mantra for Whiteley. When he returned to Australia and eventually settled by Sydney Harbour later that same year, birds, and in particular the dove, came to feature strongly in many of his most accomplished and thought-provoking works.
Dove and the Moon was first exhibited in a solo exhibition entitled Life and Death: A Visual Experience of Opposites held at Australian Galleries, Melbourne, from May to June 1983. Hitherto unnoted, cat. no. 16 was recorded simply as ‘oil and sticks on ply’. The exhibition included an extensive group of 40 works divided into subjects that focussed on death, violence, drought and birds. This was followed by a second solo showing of 32 bird and drought-related works that opened on 30 July 1983 at Robin Gibson Gallery, Sydney. 3 Dove and the Moon was acquired from the second exhibition and remained in private hands until 2009.
It is not surprising that diametrically opposed subjects figured in the same exhibition. Whiteley embraced a multitude of thought-streams as well as visual and audio stimuli. At that time, he had a dual focus on themes such as life and death; beauty and ugliness; hope and despair. This way of working, often to the accompaniment of television and music, was amplified in the accompanying catalogue note to the Melbourne showing: ‘All the works in the show’ Whiteley explained, ‘were made side by side with the series of pictures I am making on Van Gogh. Although completely different in style and intention, working on divergent themes at the same time has greatly helped both to exist more intensely … The experience of being able to change concentration quickly has led me to watching two television sets at the same time, enjoying both programmes by split-second shifting of focus and audial concentration.’4
In the Melbourne and Sydney exhibitions, Whiteley’s bird paintings provided affirming values and soothing tones in the face of an otherwise shrill and visually aggressive repertoire. Warm, reassuring colours such as peach-orange, magenta and ultramarine and cobalt blue featured in the bird paintings. Whiteley also drew upon his love and knowledge of Asian art and calligraphy to invoke the repetitive patterns and gently pulsating rhythms of an ideal landscape.
Several works from the early 1980s feature close-up representations of a dove on a nest as well as groups of doves foraging for food and seen from afar. The image of a single dove, first seen in a Whiteley work in 1969, continues with Orange Fiji Fruit Dove, The Pink Dove 1 and Dove and the Moon, all from 1983. The intimate viewpoint and the resulting feeling of a prolonged vigil by a single wide-eyed dove in these paintings conjure up feelings of loyalty, innocence and connection.
This idea of connection is central to Dove and the Moon. There is the implied correlation between the brooding bird and its absent partner who will return to take his/her turn on the nest; there is also the link between the expectant bird and its unhatched offspring. By enveloping the bird and the sky in hues of blue and creating a reflection of the night-sky in the bird’s enlarged eye, Whiteley creates a visual accord and a general feeling of peace and calm.
The cycle of life in Dove and the Moon resonates in the relationship between the bird and the moon. In a later painting from the Queensland Art Gallery collection entitled White Dove Feeling the Universe 1985–19925 the bird rises from its nest and turns obliquely towards the moon. It connects with the magnanimous qualities and mystery of the universe, not consciously, but as its romantic title suggests, through feeling and a general state of being. The idea of physical contentment and spiritual nourishment are directly reinforced by the addition of three Chinese vases on the right of the painting that reflect the elegant shape of the bird’s torso and the two eggs.
Signs of visual perfection in an otherwise imperfect world motivate Dove and the Moon and other similar paintings. These works offer a beacon of hope and a moment of introspection that celebrate the natural world and humanity. They offer a much-needed counterpoint to the tumultuous nature of Whiteley’s personal life.
1. Whiteley, B., cited in Brett Whiteley: Animals and Birds, exhibition catalogue, The Brett Whiteley Studio, Sydney, 2002.
3. Brett Whiteley - Life and Death: A Visual Experience in Opposites, Australian Galleries, Melbourne, 28 May - 18 June 1983 and Brett Whiteley: Some Recent Works: Birds (11), The Drought of 83 (7), Robin Gibson Gallery, Sydney, 30 July - 17 August 1983.
4. Brett Whiteley quoted in the exhibition catalogue, Brett Whiteley - Life and Death: A Visual Experience in Opposites, Australian Galleries, Melbourne, 28 May - 18 June 1983
5. Brett Whiteley, White Dove Feeling the Universe 1985–92, oil on plywood, 80.5 x 76.8cm, Gift of the Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Foundation for the Arts through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2012. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program
Rodney James BA (Hons); MA