To comb through the letters of Brett Whiteley is to encounter a spirited commentary on politics, relationships and many of the major developments that have gripped the art world from the Renaissance to the present day. The topics shift in turn with the currents of the world around him. But in all these letters, in all these notebook scribbles, from his earliest impressions of Europe as an ambitious young painter to his reflections on family life as an older man, the most fascinating and revealing subject, unfiltered but sincere, is creativity –and this, above all, is one topic that remains powerfully constant across time.
In June 1967, for instance, the 34-year-old painter is in Morocco for a brief holiday. He’s there with Wendy, his wife, and their young daughter Arkie. Already he has tasted significant success in London, but this trip is a chance to unwind before the beginning of a new adventure in New York, which is due to begin within months. From the Majestic Hotel in Tangier, he observes the frantic pace of a city at once unfamiliar and fascinating. He works on a series of gouaches as he writes to Colin and Kay Lanceley in London about the country around him. There’s still ‘some mystery’ to be found, he writes, but the Moroccans themselves were not ready for the ‘revolution’. In his notebook he raves about ‘lying robbing opportunists’1 – but all the while he continues to draw, to paint, and to photograph his surroundings. After Tangier, they travel to Madrid, where he spends three days exploring the Prado, and his exasperation is clear in a postcard that he sends to his mother, Beryl. ‘Tangier got a bit terrifying,’ he writes. ‘Downgrading of life. My belief in man’s goodness is schrivelling [sic]. God I’d be lost without painting.’2
That final line, of course, is the point. It’s the sentiment that never changes, regardless of what is happening around him. A decade after that postcard, almost to the day, Whiteley paints a new picture from his home on Sydney Harbour. View from the Window, Lavender Bay, continues his breathtaking variations on a theme that had been occupying his thoughts for the best part of three years. These paintings had begun as a way to celebrate the ‘optical ecstasy’ of his surroundings, inside and out, a series of pictures where romanticism and optimism would overshadow any sense of menace or foreboding. ‘I am interested in beauty,’ he wrote, ‘which can best be described as being on time for an appointment.’3
When he was painting this work, though, a certain turbulence had taken hold in the daily life of Brett Whiteley. He had been preparing to travel to London, where a new show was scheduled at Fischer Fine Art, while also dealing with the various complications of heroin addiction. Once in Europe, he travelled to a Tuscan farmhouse that belonged to Arthur Boyd (1920-1999). Already staying there was his friend, the artist Joel Elenberg (1948-1980). The Whiteleys used the time to relax and recharge, but also to get clean; an exhausting process that Brett detailed in a letter to his mother from Italy that he wrote one night at 3am, unable to sleep. Each day was better than the last, he wrote, but recovery was slow and he was still yet to reclaim a sense of ‘natural, unquestioned energy’.
Even so, for all these difficulties, Whiteley returns, again and again, to the topic that is never far from his thoughts. From Italy, he admits to feeling uncertain about the upcoming exhibition in London, but still he remains sure about one point: ‘Artistic integrity is more important than expectation or manners or money.’4
Whiteley’s mission, as an artist, was to ‘take to bursting points the hints that nature give.’ Once he had settled on Lavender Bay as a theme, he used his notebook to explain the logic of repetition: ‘Hokusai didn’t have much of a passion for Mt Fuji apart from a couple of visions, but the provision of a theme, a reference point, allowed him to become creative in ways which, if he’d had to search for what the picture was illuminating each time, would have trespassed on freedom.’5
A distinctive ultramarine blue frames this work, placing it unmistakeably in Whiteley’s world, as does the warm yellow of the water beyond. The yellow palm trees leap out in an explosion of optimism and colour. The rest of the harbour is drawn with a rapturous sense of abandon. As the artist once said: ‘there are no straight lines in nature.’ The curves of the harbour, from the trees to the jetty to the traffic on the water, are sketched in outline, their details converging in a joyful scene of abundance, movement, and life.
1. Letters from Brett Whiteley to Beryl Whiteley and Colin and Kay Lanceley, quoted in Wilson, A., Brett Whiteley: Art, Life and the Other Thing, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2016, p.135
2. Ibid., p.137
3. Ibid., p.234
4. Ibid., p.266
5. Ibid., p.227
Ashleigh Wilson is the author of Brett Whiteley: Art, Life and the Other Thing (2016), On Artists (2019) and A Year with Wendy Whiteley (2022).