Menzies Art Brands

BRETT WHITELEY, Untitled (Heron, Rain and Wind)


Brett Whiteley’s elegantly subtle multi-media painting Heron, Rain and Wind of 1973, reveals a hidden, certainly lesser-known, side of the Sydney wunderkind

The sizeable painting exudes a palpable sense of quietude and calm. Often, Whiteley’s paintings are characterized by a “paint your scream” mentality, as he called it when talking to Arthur Boyd in London in the early Sixties. At the time he was obviously thinking of the mode that may be sensed in his intense Christie Series and in his later even more dramatic New York paintings created at the infamous Chelsea Hotel in the late Sixties. Certainly, these are all extraordinarily riveting works that are charged with a psychologically felt sense of urgency, which was prompted by specifically impassioned themes.

Yet, Whiteley had another deep and more delicate side to his character – it shows abundantly in Heron, Rain and Wind of 1973, where contemplation and a meditative calm wafts through the work. These “easy-to-live with” attributes give the painting a perfumed air of tranquility. They seem sensed into existence.

Essentially, Whiteley always succumbed to sensation. “Sensation” is a word that he used in conversation more often than most. Whiteley has continually described his reactions to things in terms of sensate input – of personal perceptions, contacts, subjective effects and physical responses, rather than “meanings”, literary content, “expressions”, “impressions”, theory and the like. For Whiteley, art was always a felt thing – that is, it was much more visceral. There was always something of the antenna about his detection of incoming signals of felt sensation. 

There are four related factors that are relevant for the fuller understanding of this new phase in Whiteley’s art with its delicately understated themes and techniques.

Firstly, for Whiteley, these new signals were initially detected in July 1969 during a blissful five-month stay in a small thatched roof cottage in the coral-coast village of Navutulevu, about seventy-two kilometres from the capital city of Suva in Fiji (The Republic of the Fiji Islands). Whiteley, his wife Wendy and their five year-old daughter Arkie (1964-2001), lived simply and happily and enjoyed their island paradise after the turmoil and bustle of a two-year stay in New York on a Harkness Fellowship. Wendy Whiteley (1941-) summed the period up well: 

We really did live in Paradise there. Brett was painting birds, landscapes, and frangipanis, some of the Fijians. It was Gauguin and Tahiti: you could sink into it.1 

Unfortunately, it was a stay that was abruptly cut short by an early morning drug raid by the Fiji police. Whiteley was fined £F50 for drug possession and hastily forced to return to Sydney. His much-publicised return filled the tabloids and its unfortunate circumstances fuelled gossip and even gloating relish. 

Back in Sydney, at his Lavender Bay home retreat, Whiteley seemed to find some form of mental compensation and unstressed relief; as a result, his paintings came to be characterised by a new contented visual pleasure. Fiji, an area of many hundreds of islands, is a tropical haven that centres upon the largest landmass of Viti Levu, set in the centre of the surrounding Oceania ecozone. As such, amongst many other attractions, it has a very rich bird life. Despite the unexpected end to his holiday in Fiji, the elegant form and rich colour of its bird-life were to stay in Whiteley’s mind as a “visual mantra” in times of personal reflection. At home, in Sydney, his artistic attention returned to natural themes: landscapes, still life, interiors and bird life. Many underlying, hidden and even subliminal elements waft through Whiteley’s Bird Series paintings. They all have a new air of ease and contentment.

Secondly, like most of Whiteley’s Bird Series paintings, Heron, Rain and Wind of 1973 has a feint air of the Orient about it – as though it forms part of a Japanese screen or inlaid lacquer work. It seems most likely that Whiteley noticed the lyrical charm of Chinese and Japanese bird paintings and their bucolic themes. Whiteley was an observational magpie - he had an acute “eye” in that he so often noticed that which went unnoticed by others. Chinese vases, Japanese prints, screens, calligraphy, kimono fabrics, bas-reliefs on bronzes - all these varied elements widened his artistic “vocabulary” and honed his visual literacy. Significantly, Whiteley’s bird series are not “interpretations” or copies of any Oriental theme - he does not “Orientalise”. This is quite different from some Western artists who visit the East and paint works that are intended for a Western wall and are conceived of as “souvenirs” or “mementoes” of time spent in a foreign land. Needless to say, Whiteley’s Orient-tinged paintings are not like these. 

Thirdly, this painting was created at a time when the Crafts Board and the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council promoted new links with Asia by supporting Australian potters, printmakers, sculptors and painters to visit China and Japan and acquaint themselves with the art of the East. Subsequently, Asian aesthetics became prominent in Australia - this is remarkable as, in contrast with today, Australia knew little of Asia and it is worth recalling that, at the time, there was only one Japanese restaurant in Melbourne - the famous Sukiyaki Inn off Little Bourke Street at the back of the old Southern Cross building. Books on Asia too were very rare and suddenly, in the mid 1970s, international publishers such as Kodansha, Tuttle and Hokkeido Press made scholarly works available through local outlets. It was a highpoint in Australia’s Post-War early awareness of Asia’s locational and cultural significance and Whiteley’s Heron, Rain and Wind of 1973 was created mid-point in that period.

Fourthly, Whiteley’s period in New York introduced him to the American use of collage and montage in painting. It was fresh and visually brash. Its visual effects as intrusions of three-dimensional reality into the two-dimensional reality of paintings had a “smack in the eye” power about them – especially in the striking works of Robert Rauschenberg (whose studio Whiteley visited), Jasper Johns, Tom Wessellman and Joseph Cornell. Whiteley’s incorporation of objects, photographs and graphics date from around this time and his Heron, Rain and Wind of 1973 is one of the most elegantly graceful of these. It shows an egg siting in a nest of twigs that has been attached to the canvas. The real and the painted elements coalesce as though they are different versions of each other bunched together in the lower left of the canvas as a “grounding” structure that balances the larger expanse of silken grey sky.

The eye-opening brilliance of Whiteley’s Bird Series was first brought to wider public attention by Barry Pearce, the former Senior Curator of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, in the highly successful Brett Whiteley Retrospective of 1995. Since that time it is generally agreed that this consummate set of thematic paintings shows Whiteley exercising his most closely focussed restraint while demonstrating his enviable artistic pizzazz.

Whiteley’s Heron, Rain and Wind of 1973 is a more sophisticated and accomplished precursor of two of his very closely related paintings: Shui (Water Wader) of 1978-79, which was sold by Bonhams in November 2011 for $480,000 (IBP) and Shao (Rain Slanted by Wind) also of 1978-79, sold by Sotheby’s Australia in August 2010 for $689,000 (IBP). 

It’s worth asking: has any twenty-year old artist ever appeared on the front page of The Australian newspaper ever since Whiteley did in 1961? Of course, his Heron, Rain and Wind of 1973 was painted twelve years after that time but it amply shows the bravura, flair, airy grace and the open spatiality that took the Australian art world by storm. 


1. Wendy Whiteley “Recollections, Wendy Whiteley interviewed by Barry Pearce” in Pearce, Barry, Brett Whiteley, Art and Life, Thames and Hudson and The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1995, p.45-46


“Brett Whiteley”, obituary, The Times, London, 18 June 1992

Adams, P., “Fame was the Spur”, The Australian, Sydney, Saturday 30 September
1995, p.2

Art Gallery of New South Wales, 9 Shades of Whiteley, Regional Tour, (Gold Coast Regional Art Gallery, Lismore Regional Gallery, New England Regional Art Museum, Maitland Regional Art Gallery, Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery), 12 July 2008 to 23 August 2009, Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2008

Gray, R., “ A Few Takes on Brett Whiteley”, Art and Australia, vol.24, No.2,
Summer 1986

Hawley, J., Encounters with Australian Artists, St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1993

Heathcote, C., “Whiteley: the pleasure king of modern art”, The Age, Melbourne, Thursday 18 June 1992, p.14

Hughes, R., The Art of Australia, Melbourne, Pelican, 1970

McGrath, S., Brett Whiteley, Sydney, Bay Books, 1979

McCulloch, A., “Letter from Australia”, Art International, October, 1970

Pearce, B., Brett Whiteley, Art and Life, Sydney, Thames and Hudson and
the Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1995

Pearce, B.; Whiteley, W., Brett Whiteley: Connections, Tarrawarra Museum
of Art, Healesville, 2011

McGrath, S., Brett Whiteley, Sydney, Bay Books, 1979

Smith, B.; Smith, T., Australian Painting 1788-90, Melbourne, Oxford University
Press, 1991

Sutherland, K., Brett Whiteley A Sensual Line 1957-67, Melbourne, Macmillan
Art Publishing, 2010

Thomas, D., Outlines of Australian Art: The Joseph Brown Collection,
South Melbourne, Macmillan, 1989

Associate Professor Ken Wach
Dip. Art; T.T.T.C.; Fellowship RMIT; MA; PhD.
Emeritus Principal Research Fellow
and Head, School of Creative Arts
The University of Melbourne

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