Now, I am not interested in ornithology … not even particularly in birds. But what does interest me is MOOD, a force I find as difficult to understand as the existentialism in a gnat. The sudden peculiar plummet of an atmosphere in a room. Or weather? Or the thing that keeps friendship consistent; the reveries inside the religion of coincidence.1
It is obvious every bird embodies a certain personality or idiosyncrasy, the same elements that were integral to the moods Whiteley absorbed and attuned himself to through his art. The avian presence was studied and increasingly expanded across his oeuvre from the late 1960s, both in species and compositional focus. Birds became a meditation on not just natural beauty and allegories of freedom, but also recovery and health – sometimes a sentimental relief for Whiteley, and other times celebrative, funny (Owl Thong 1988), or even wryly political (The Great Bowerbird 1971).
Motions of charcoal line – the cavorting line constantly adjusted – delineate and contour the strong shape of Whiteley’s Cockatoo. Executed in 1988, the larrikin bird is captured in profile, perched with its eye keenly fixated on the beholder. Like all observational drawings, it captures an immediacy or presence in time: between the artist, their hand, and subject. As Whiteley would say: ‘The purpose of drawing is to make freshness permanent.’2 The sensitivity – this freshness – of the charcoal is apparent in how it smears and fuses itself into the faint underlay of tense lines. Moreover, the smudging does not contribute to any tonal volume, but emphasises Whiteley’s tentative mark making which finds resolution in bold, decisive outlines.
The cockatoo’s emotional state is ambivalent: its dilated pupil conveys anxiety, curiosity, or even excitement. The pupil exhibits a centrifugal force through sharp dashes of charcoal that circulate and concentrate around the inky black field. The momentum of these lines moves in a clockwise motion, yet still retains an agitated charge. Cockatoo is a monocular composition, a cyclopic image, recalling the monochrome and Symbolist imagery of Odilon Redon (1840-1916). Whiteley’s practice no doubt echoed sentiments of the French Symbolists of the late nineteenth century and their associated poets, Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) and Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), whom Whiteley referenced in his art and writings.
Whiteley developed his avian leitmotif through a multi-media approach; each dimension allowed him to embellish and explore the diverse habitats, instincts, and anatomical qualities of his select birds. Drawn from different geographical regions, the birds – heron, hummingbird, corella, gannet, magpie, wren, kookaburra, dove – function as symbolic points of memory and observation. One priority of these works was attending to the bird’s distinct sound; to transcribe their esoteric (or even coarsely irksome) refrain, to decrypt and render their birdcalls through visual modes of expression.
His preoccupation with birds comfortably spanned three decades and culminated in the landmark 1988 exhibition in which this present lot featured. Titled simply Birds, the series of paintings, drawings and sculpture was presented at his recently acquired warehouse studio at 2 Raper Street, Surry Hills. The commercially successful body of work emerged not long after a turbulent period in Whiteley’s life that was personally and creatively taxing. Together, his feathered creatures became a navigational compass for his state of mind, intimately guiding him and leaving us to discover how this very cockatoo inspired and provoked the artist.
1. Brett Whiteley, quoted in Birds and Animals [exhibition catalogue], Robin Gibson Gallery, Sydney, 1979
2. Brett Whiteley, quoted in Klepac, L., Brett Whiteley Drawings, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2014, p.22
Tim Marvin is an emerging curator and art historian based in Sydney. He has a Bachelor of Art Theory (Honours, First Class) from the University of New South Wales, and currently holds positions at Sullivan + Strumpf and Artspace, Sydney. He has previously worked for Smith & Singer (formerly Sotheby's Australia) and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.