White-fella Dreaming #7 – Brett Whiteley, numbed and dreamless amid the poppy fields never Crossed Roads with Rover Thomas
Brett Whiteley on the Trail of “IT” Discovers Death and Atonement
Brett Whiteley on the Trail of “IT” Discovers Death and Atonement
The New South Wales Art Gallery sits in parkland overlooking Sydney harbour, away from the hustle and bustle of the trade and commerce that constitute the real driving force of the city.
It was built in the 1890’s, not so much as a classical temple to art, as yet another means of refuting the annoying and patently ‘bogus’ (to residents of Sydney at least) claims of Melbourne to the status of being Australia’s premier city. Those lesser beings, the residents of Melbourne, who already boasted a fine art gallery had to be shown that Sydney had the premier claim to being the foremost example of antipodean splendour. Not that they had to worry all that much. Sydney’s extravert extravagance was founded on the undeniable truth that they had the sunny weather, the surf beaches, the harbour and (of course) lots of money. Melbourne had the rain and Port Phillip Bay, in which relatively few people ever contemplate swimming, but at least they too have lots of money too.
An extension to the building was finally commissioned as part of the celebration of the coming of Europeans to Australia, or as it was termed, the Captain Cook Bicentenary celebrations. These were opened in 1970 and 1988 and were contained within the classical facade, extending backwards to an area with a more modern look and feel.
Once you have entered the building and walked past the elegant nineteenth century drawing room galleries, you come to the more modern heart of the building. Keep walking and you will finally come to a dead end at Brett Whiteley’s, Alchemy, 1972-1973. If you visit the website for the New South Wales Art Gallery, you will discover a good deal about Alchemy. For example, it is made up of...Oil, gold leaf, collage, rock, perpex, electricity, pencil, PVA, varnish, brain, earth, twig, taxidermied bird, nest, egg, feathers, cicada, bone, dentures, rubber and metal sink plug, pins, shell and glass eye on eighteen wood panels, 203 x 1615 x 9 cm; not signed, not dated
It features various inscriptions amongst the surrealist imagery. They are as follows...
Inscriptions: c.in black ink (panel 1) ‘For the poet is a light + winged and holy thing,/ and there is no invention in him until he has been/ inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind/ is no longer in him; when he has not attained/ to this state, he is powerless and is unable to/ utter his oracles/ Plato/ 1. The way that can be spoken of/ Is not the constant way;/ Alchemy/ the Grand work/ to bring together all the previous/ TRANSMUTATION/ or God?/ A lot of the time the experience cannot be expressed by merely xistence [sic] one single absolute image,/ for one image cannot hold it. Only by evoking a chain of images, as in a dream, does one/ approximate the experience. A single flash of understanding with each grouping or ‘chapter’ of/ forms, is what is expected from the viewer. This elliptical + heretic style of painting allows/ for infinite freedom – for both of us. But to lose the place, or stumble, all is lost, the/ picture is meaningless. The thread is the Transmutation./ The fine art of painting, which is the bastard of alchemy, always has been always will be,/ a game. The rules of the game are quite simple: in a given arena, on as many psychic/ fronts as the talent allows, one must visually describe, the centre of the meaning of xistence [sic]’
And what is it all about? Read on and be informed, if not enlightened...
Painted over one year, Alchemy summarized Whiteley’s state of mind at the time in all its myriad accumulation of influences in his own history as an artist. Like (an earlier Whiteley work entitled) The American Dream this was another self-portrait on a gigantic scale, without the fierce political agenda in its conception. Spread over 18 panels it may be read right to left as a vision of earth, ocean, sky through transmutations of flesh, genitalia, fornication and landscape, ending with a white sun and serpentine tentacles set against a gold background. The last two panels were from a destroyed portrait Whiteley had made in 1972 of Yukio Mishima, a Japanese writer who committed seppuku in 1970, believing that the gap between art and action could be closed effectively through ritual death. According to literary mythology Mishima’s final vision as the knife cut into his flesh, was of an exploding sun which lit the sky for an instant of so-called spiritual illumination. The vision in fact became the technical beginning of Alchemy, as Whiteley developed his composition from left to right. But the work can be read either way, or even from the center, where an image of the word ‘IT’ holds the fulcrum between opposing ideas. (Barry Pearce, Head Curator, Australian Art, Art Gallery of New South Wales)
The most self-conscious piece of writing Whiteley ever did, apart from his thumbnail-in-tar signature, was IT of Alchemy 1972-1973, an ominous, austere pronoun uniting the notional wings of his altarpiece to nascent addiction. This IT compacted life, passion, death and faith in a single, empowering word, which, acknowledging the wondrous impossibility of alchemy and its bastard, art, he characterized as completely linguistically indescribable. (Bruce James).
So who was Brett Whiteley and what was the IT of Alchemy?
Women found him enormously attractive. I remember (our mother) saying once that ‘we all had sex appeal’; what her generation call IT (Brett: A Portrait of Brett Whiteley by his Sister 255).
Brett said he spent his childhood in a Napoleonic rage but his childhood could not have been more idyllic (Brett’s Sister 250).
Brett Whiteley was employed as a commercial artist while undertaking his formal art training.
Philip Adams later described his painting as glib and smart alleckey. Adams (who had been a partner in an ad agency) said that If you had been in advertising you could see “agency” written all over them. But he later saw Whiteley sketching in a documentary film and was dazzled. The documentary featured glimpses of Whiteley drawing with just a few lines some idea he had wanted to commit to paper. It was this ability to draw a line was that dazzled Adams and differentiated Whitely from the agency scribblers (Brett’s Sister 99).
Brett had met Wendy Julius around this time. She was fifteen, he was seventeen. Wendy was studying at the National Art School at East Sydney (Hilton Margot and Blundell Graeme Whiteley: An Unauthorised Life 37). Wendy’s father was a convicted thief, her grandfather founder of CSIRO (Australia’s premier government funded scientific research body)
I remember them coming to the house one day after they had been down to the bay, with the expressions of two who had together found the Holy Grail. Something enormously significant, sacred and lasting had happened between them that excluded all others. They were to exude this intensely romantic, impenetrable privacy for the next thirty years (Brett’s Sister 99).
The perceived loss of this important first female, the mother, assaulted his anima and annihilated his innocence. Cynicism was born, the poet’s requisite ‘edge’. I believe that our mother was his first real muse, but at a price, In order for the artist to be born it was necessary for the mother, playing the devil’s advocate, to eject the son, to catapult him into reality. Western society does not provide ritual of severance between mother and son; it does not respect the natural act of terminating the bonds of the womb. The son must ‘kill’ the mother in order to move on, to find himself. But in the case of Brett and our mother, as is so often seen, the mother initiated the ‘killing’ – and was not forgiven for it. Her first departure had been the curtain raiser for the final breakdown of our parent’s marriage a year later. The bond with Beryl and the influence she exerted over Brett were only equalled by his marriage to Wendy Julius (Brett’s Sister 91).
In 1959 Whitely received an Italian Government scholarship that allowed him to work in that country. He moved from Italy to London and... (An Unauthorised 38) and branched into abstract expressionism – endeavouring to interpret with line and colour the reality of the mood and character of what he saw (43). It was, as Whiteley said, “important to paint pictures about other pictures and not always about recent life”. This was an understatement, The frequency of his references to other pictures with his own pictures ‘about recent life indicated that his absorption of what he saw was total (44) He gathered an enormous image bank from which he drew endless other subliminal credits. Pictures, a total blur with no allusion to anything real (47).
Whiteley:“Mass and tone and line with sensual undertones – starting with a figure then painting it out. I wanted to paint a spirit and” IT” – not something that reminds (him) of anything else (47)
...So what was the IT of Alchemy?
In 1962 he married Wendy and they honeymooned in France where he started painting “Summer at Sigean”
It was the) Last of Whiteley’s abstract work – a paen for him to Wendy. His excusive absorption in, and with, her was to be short lived. To Brett success equalled love which made up for his mother’s desertion and the rejections of his childhood. “Wendy’s resentment was his dalliances that grew. His art thrived and with it his libidinous impulses (Brett’s Sister 49).
Around this time, Bob Dylan was starting work on his Freewheeling album. It also celebrated the trip to Europe of a lady he loved, but in this case she was in the long and ongoing process of breaking off her ties to him. Dylan would hear from his lover that she was stay in Italy indefinitely and songs such as Boots of Spanish Leather and Down the Highway written around this time would express his feelings of loss.
In 1963, Whitely completed “Summer at Sigean” and started his paintings of Wendy nude in bathroom. The Beatles were recording the first of their pop albums
(Unauthorised 50) Bret was concentrating on the female form, for the purpose of art, on the female form of his wife. She was the inspiration for his incandescent Bathroom series, a dynamic mix of abstractions and figuration..” an undisguised celebration of his marriage and reflection of his total absorption in a beautiful wife and domestic happiness”
However, the truth was rather different
The Bathroom series.. could not have been painted if Bacon had not shown us how to manipulate the human figure in enclosed space, but the emotional climate of Whiteley’s work has a sensual relaxation nearer to Bonnard’s bathroom that anything in Bacon’s work,’(Unauthorised 51 quoting the Sunday Times newspaper)
(Unauthorised 51 quoting Robert Hughes) Every painting of Whteley’s is a roll in the hay with the march of art history. As soon as an issue about the nature of art or perception was raised by another painter – Gorky, de Kooning, Bacon, Giacometti, Rauschenberg, Johns, Warhol, Piero Della Fancesca, Uccello, Masaccio – Whiteley was into it, either painting his way through it or arguing it out…His intellectual appetite is matched by no other Australian painter His outstanding act was his decision not to be original – not to narrow his style into the ‘crippling uniqueness of a trademark’ but to keep it all opened, preserving the flow of ideas between his art environment and his own experience.
(Unauthorised 52) By this time, Brett’s infidelities had become a major cause of distress. Inevitably, his defiant callousness increased Wendy’s resentment and in the process of steeling herself against him, she began her own line of retaliation, exposing herself the ‘emotional demands of other people’
In this context, on their return to London, Brett’s choice of concentrating his next major works on Christie, the Jekyl and Hyde personality who slaughtered prostitutes, takes on another dimension. They offered a marked contrast to the sensual optimism of this nudes in the bath.
In 1965, the Beatles had made A Hard Day’s Night and Dylan was trying to avoid facing up to the loss of his lover in Another Side of Bob Dylan.
Brett exhibited the Bathroom Series of his nude wife at Marlborough Gallery
(Unauthorised ( 53) London in late 1964 was changing rapidly. People were talking about the Beatles. Harold Wilson’s Labour Party won the election. The working class had more money (they were better off than they ever had been according to the ousted Tory Prime Minister) and their own heroes. ‘It was a fantastic year,’ remembered Colin Lancely. ‘A page in the history of the country was being turned and that released an enormous energy. Brett was more into the kind of rock music than I was. There are a lot of connections in that – again it was the drug thing, too.
By the end of 1964 Brett was entrenched in London, attached to the mainstream. The Brits responded to his Australian brazenness. They found it rather charming and he knew how to press all the buttons.
George Martin was enriching the Beatles musically by turning to his classical music education for inspiration in the production of Rubber Soul
Bob Dylan had counselled the Beatles on making their lyrics more meaningful when he met them on his triumphant but soul-destroying tour. Bob returned to America determined to take some time out and it was claimed that he had undergone a near death experience, after a motorcycle accident in rural Woodstock, just out of New York.
John and Paul paid heed to his advice and delivered in spades in the studio with George Martin, recording “Rubber Soul”. The beginnings of profound English rock music, with a joke soubriquet for a title. That summed up the whole tenor of the times.
You better run for your life
if you can, little girl
Hide your head in the sand little girl
Catch you with another man
That’s the end’a little girl
(Unauthorised ( 55) Christie gassed his victims before engaging in necrophilia with the barely alive corpses. Whiteley (who rented a house in the area of the atrocities and drank in a pub with a brother of one of the victims from around 1961 became obsessed with the story – a symbol of the times... (Whiteley)...The murderer could no more control his madness than the world could control its energies. “I feel on all levels, from Christie to the White House – on what wavelength are they working? You get the same destructive element coming through civilisation on all levels”
(Unauthorised 59) McGillick: Brett thought if you could not understand what HELL was like, then you’d never appreciate the meaning of heaven
(Unauthorised 60) The Christie paintings, using the forms employed in the Bathroom series but adding the murderous depravity to the mix, made Whiteley a household name virtually overnight.
(Brett Whiteley quoted in Unauthorised Life 59) I felt obliged to show life in its completeness – that it would be a lie just to show the good things of life
If the good things in life were encapsulated in the domestic bliss depicted in the bathroom series, then the lie may well have been the extent to which he had betrayed them in his marital infidelities
The vehicle that needed to be manufactured –the Christie paintings were the perfect antithesis to the Bathroom paintings. A pile-up between “Matissen Beauty” and an unadulterated death camp (Brett Whiteley quoted in Unauthorised Life 60)
(Unauthorised 61) The Christie paintings were influenced by Bacon, and also the De Kooning notion of NO SPACE – painting the bits of the space AROUND THE BODY – underneath the arm pit, between the legs, between the body and the chair or the bottom of a table.
Painting the space became as valid as the paining an actual leg or arm.
When all the pieces became fragments, they could be mobilised anywhere within the image and become representations, looking for a home with the paint.
Such manipulation of the human form raises a question. Was Brett Whiteley’s absorption with imaginatively pushing his own experience into concepts of opposite extremes? Or was it a reflection of his impulse to purge the unpredictable sexual curiosity which frequently caused him to betray that which held most dear (Brett Whiteley quoted in Unauthorised Life 62).
The prevailing spirit of the times seemed to be one of flagrant sexual promiscuity. The inception of the female contraceptive pill had invalidated the argument that unwanted pregnancy was a reason for chaste relationships between the sexes. The discovery of penicillin some twenty years earlier had robbed the ogre of sexually transmitted diseases of some of its potency.
So the more adventurous girls were out there trying on the full on screw-‘em-and-leave-‘em attitudes of rampant male sexual promiscuity. After a few years of this, they seemed to get the idea that their intellectual curiosity in experiencing sex from the male perspective was no match for the testosterone driven maelstrom of the male sex drive. There were just too many lousy male lovers lining up to replace each other in the ongoing quest to take control of a willing female body. Curiosity can only take a girl so far along the route to ecstasy. Blokes are happy to ride any which way they can just to join them.
But that was in the future then – as the behaviour portrayed in Blowup - Antonioni’s 1966 film set in swinging London would show. The film starts out with a fashion photographer aimlessly taking photos of people playing tennis with imaginary tennis balls, and an attractive woman luring an older man into a park. The ‘hero’ of Blowup engages in sex the same way as he engages in taking photographs – it is essentially just another way to pass the time. But when the narrative of the film reveals that the young woman was luring the man to his murder he struggles for a while with the moral complexity. In the end he loses interest in such matters. The last scene shows him hurling the imaginary tennis ball back into the tennis court when asked to do so by the players.
The whole Jekyll and Hyde thing – the duality of good and evil that co-exist in the human psyche, which is supposedly represented in the Christie paintings provides fruitful grounds for contemplation of the human condition. The plot line of Robert Louis Stevenson’s story seems to argue that it is not possible to rid human nature of all the bad bits thereby leaving only the good bits.
A fully developed human being (and even one who never achieves this state) is comprised of both good and bad.
Any attempt to hive off the bad bits (such as Dr Hyde’s resort to drugs that transformed him, for a short time into the evil Mr Jekyll) or claiming some religious sanctification that is not genuine (such as priests who take vows of celibacy then seek relief from their natural urges by molesting children), seems destined to failure.
It is up to the individual to respond to the twin forces of hereditary and environment to find self-fulfilment through his responses to the circumstances life throws his way. They will amount to virtue on some occasions and vice on others. Their sum total will mould the character of the human being. That character will have some effect on the way the person reacts to life’s pains and pleasures.
And what is virtue and how is it discovered?
Psalm 119 9-10 How can a young man keep his
By living according to your word.
I seek you with all my heart;
do not let me stray from your commands.
The New South Wales Art Gallery houses works by another artist who had depicted the killings of human beings. The painter is Rover Thomas, an indigenous Australian who only started painting in 1981 at the age of 55.
Rover Thomas was one of the many stockmen who had been expelled from the lands on which they had received their initiation into their own tribal culture around ten years earlier.
That all came about because the people of Australia had voted to award citizenship to the original inhabitants of the land in a referendum in 1967. Once the original inhabitants had been granted citizenship, they were eligible to receive award wages for the work they performed on the grazing properties that had been carved out of their tribal country. The owners of the cattle properties claimed they could not afford to pay award wages to the people who had worked for them in exchange for subsistence remuneration for around a century, so they were moved on.
The works of Rover Thomas exhibit some similarities to the Pintupi Painters of the Western Desert in Central Australia. Perhaps that is not surprising, given that Thomas was born in the Great Western Desert and spent time around Kintore before he moved north to the Kimberley region of North West Australia.
And like some of the Papunya paintings (and for that matter, paintings produced in the busy studios of the Renaissance painting masters), they can be collaborative efforts, with the named artist providing the genesis of the forms and overseeing their creation.
But his works differ in one striking way. Perhaps the easiest way to convey that difference is to refer to the work of sixties Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, who created large paintings by reproducing a single illustration from a comic book.
Thomas creates large canvases based on just one of the many designs that may be repeated continuously in a painting in what has come to be referred to as the Papunya style. In doing so, his work takes on the grandeur of a Mark Rothko painting of a black rectangle against a dark background, with hints of pastel colour embedded in the background. However the paintings of Thomas feature rich orange and yellow ochre hues, and contain the white dotting so familiar in other Aboriginal styles.
It may be a good idea to quote Wally Caruana, Curator of Aboriginal Art at the National Gallery of Australia from the Thomas Exhibition Catalogue (3) ...
The flowing forms and visual textures which appear in the paintings of Rover Thomas, Paddy Jaminji and other Turkey Creek artists give a new and vibrant perspective to the nature of Aboriginal perception and depiction of country Both plan and profile treatments of landscapes as intuitive forms create ‘maps’ of the geographic and historical topography of the Kimberley. While these painting are perhaps more easily approached by the non-Aboriginal observer, they are still imbued with the presence and mystery of the narungani, or creative past, and the power beings who inhabited it and who can still be invoked through ritual. The physical landscape is a palimpsest of history and human interaction. Unfortunately many of the white/black relationships and interactions that have been a feature of East Kimberley life over the last century were for a brief but intense period splashed with the scarlet of spilt blood
Rover Thomas had not only lived through a significant and tumultuous period of the history of the Kimberley but has himself become a part of the story of the county, a story expressed in his art. In Rover Thomas’s paintings, the land becomes the subject, theme and witness of the events on both the epic supernatural and intimate human scales.
Rover Thomas has developed a personal style which is deeply rooted in his knowledge of the traditional pictorial conventions of the region. His works incorporate all the traits of East Kimberly rock art and the more ephemeral body painting traditions. His landscapes rendered in broad areas of natural pigments and gums appear both in plan views and side-on, often simultaneously. Shapes are often delineated by white dots, a convention found also in the desert. The landscapes relate to tracts of country, with specific indicators to sites of either traditional or historic importance, and twentieth-century iconography is incorporated easily when necessary
The abstract depictions by Rover Thomas of killings by pastoral property owners of Aboriginals generally relate to incidents that took place in the first few decades of the twentieth century (before he was born). They usually arose out of the killing and eating of cattle by the local aboriginals. Though they represent despicable and outrageous acts of calumny, it should be born in mind that it was not part of some genocidal mission to obliterate the indigenous population. They were too valuable as subsistence wages workers for that to be contemplated.
Although these histories are often related by the survivors or the descendants of survivors of these depredations quietly and without any moral outrage(‘that happened in them days”) or even with a degree of humour, such events were as ruthless, as cruel and as bloody, as any perpetrated elsewhere in the world – in the past or today (Exhibition Catalogue 40).
Rover Thomas related the stories that would be depicted in his ‘massacre’ paintings to interested observers of his art in 1984 and 1985 and these are recorded along with reproductions of the works at pages 41-56 of the Exhibition Catalogue. These are not the sombre forms, possibly resonant with ideas of holocaust, by a Mark Rothko. Nor are they angry stylings of a Guernica by Picasso. They are engagingly stark, rich and warm in hue, bold and elating works of the human spirit. And remember, I don’t even know what I like when it comes to art. But these paintings, created in 1990 and 1991 evoke a reaction, even from me.
In 1965, Dylan produced Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. An angry sounding young man by the name of Van Morrison and his band entered the recording studio and came out with a hit extolling the delights of a young lady named Gloria. In America, some refugees from the folk music boom turned to rock and roll and enjoyed great success with a reworking of Dylan’s song Mr Tambourine Man
Brett Whitely exhibited his Christie and Zoo paintings (Unauthorised Life 61) The Zoo paintings were a counterpoint to Christie – they captured the forces of good in nature – the duality of his own personality, his outlook, thereby demonstrating the polar extremes that can and do coexist, each an inextricable part of the other
He was able to return to the Antipodes for a holiday in New Zealand with his sister and her husband and in Australia at Whale Beach, Sydney
(Brett’s Sister 126) The talk ebbed and flowed for days, until the condensation ran down the walls. Brett had a block of hashish hidden in his paintbox and Highway 61 Revisited in his suitcase, my first experience of Bob Dylan He and Wendy danced in their erotic, personalised way and Brett led me into Dylan’s world, making me listen to the words, discussing meaning and emotion. He had found an intellectual and spiritual brother in this man… Brett was obsessed with poet-musician Dylan as were many of our generation. He collected his albums and was intimate with every song as though they were speaking to him directly. He listened to Dylan almost daily for most of his life …Bob Dylan was a figure of heroic proportions who influence a great deal of my brother’s thinking about life, love, sex, drugs, poetics and music.
(Brett’s Sister 129) The American visit had introduced the first visual rumblings of New York Pop into his work with arrows, dots and other trick. (A painting he produced while with us) was possibly the first in which he road tested this new knowledge and visual language. He was to develop and use these devices and short cuts from then on, never entirely dropping the optical information he picked up from that first brush with the contemporary New &York art scene in 1965
(Brett’s Sister 127) …they dropped names of acquaintances and friends like Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger and others.
In 1966 Brett returned to London as the Beatles were releasing Revolver, Dylan was celebrating the new love he had found in Blonde on Blonde, and Eric Clapton had found some musical colleagues who where more than his equal and released Fresh Cream, featuring his raga rock solo on Spoonful – a feat that would haunt him for the rest of his career.
Dylan was touring with the Band. Van Morrison had met his future (short term) wife, Janet Planet in San Francisco while performing with Them at the Fillmore
In 1967 the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper and Dylan a countrified John Wesley Harding. An American guitar player named Jimi Hendrix was lured to London with nothing but his guitar and a manager who knew how to turn networking with old music chums into a launching pad for a new take on rock music. Are You Experienced convinced everyone that Hendrix had found more in the sounds a stack of Marshal amplifiers could produce than they had ever dreamed about. He would set fire to his guitar at the Monterey Rock Festival then become enthralled with Dylan’s lyrics and later make a monumental recording of All Along the Watchtower – one of the songs on John Wesley Harding. Eric Clapton and Cream released Disraeli Gears.
1967 Whitely was awarded a Harkness Foundation Scholarship and ended up in at the Chelsea Hotel New York a year later chasing the American Dream. That was turning into a nightmare. There was a growing mood of opposition to the US involvement in the Vietnam War using young man who had been conscripted into the army. The university students had fostered an atmosphere of dissent that was provoking the kind of violent retribution that would escalate into the Kent State Shootings of students by the US National Guard two years later. The Beatles White Album had (allegedly) inspired an unappreciated rock musician, Charles Manson, to kill celebrities in the name of starting a race war. Cream released Wheels of Fire, Hendrix Electric Ladyland and Van Morrison travelled to New York where he produced Astral Weeks.
Whiteley, severely shaken by the rampant paranoia that confronted him produced a painting-installation he called (ironically) the American Dream. No one wanted it. (Unauthorised Life 76). Brett naively believed he could produce a picture so antiwar, so repugnant, that it would shake people out of war.
Whiteley: It was a making a statement of my own existence – which had become violent – helped by drugs and drink and the temperature of New York,
(Unauthorised 77) After abstract expressionism, colour field and pop, painting and sculpture were going out of fashion. Art was becoming conceptual, moving toward photographs and performance - Laurie Anderson (“Big Science”) epitomized New York performance art. Conceptual art WAS the FUTURE of ART – NOT BRETT WHITELEY. So even though Brett was making a very radical political statement, in his work IT WAS RETROGRADE. Brett was still tied up with Picasso and Matisse.
American Dream was Brett’s response to the avant garde New York art scene. Marlborough refused to exhibit it on the grounds of its scale, subject matter, combination of media – collage and police siren.
(Unauthorised 64) Rejected, stalemated and humiliated by New York – Brett fled to paradise in Fiji in mid 1969. Wendy took six months to clear up business after him.
(Unauthorised 80) What became Wendy’s feverish dash out after Brett was motivated less by love than what she described as a determination for her daughter to NOT be without a father, as she had been. She talked of having been at breaking point, indicating that for both of them, there had been lovers and others who had an intent on pulling them apart.
Fiji was to provide a saving grace – a paradise – the sort of breathing space they desperately needed from time to time. There was no longer any need to pore over the nature of pornography, of violence, of all the sources of the kind of devil thing – Vietnam – the whole techno American world
But then the Fijian authorities busted him for heroin,
Whiteley returned to Australia with an exhibition’s worth of Fiji paintings and took up residence in Lavender Bay, Sydney.
Meanwhile, back in America in 1970, the Woodstock Three Day Concert featured Jimi Hendrix and two ex-folkies he had moved into rock called Crosby and Stills and an English popster called Nash. It seemed like such a good idea that the Rolling Stones organised their own mini Woodstock at Altamont Speedway and one of the Hell’s Angels bikies they had hired to look after the security stabbed one of the persons attending. The whole peace, love and music thing was looking decidedly suspect. The chickens were coming home to roost...
(Unauthorised 83) Lavender Bay – 1969 – Brett knew how to work the press. For Brett, build up and aftermath were almost as important as event and arrival – he was a reporter’s gift. He divined that Sydney was about publicity. If you wanted to be the face of the moment you had to be recognisable in the street, stand out in a crowd.
That was never a problem for Brett. He was the star, playing himself, framing his own presentation.
Lenore Nicklin, Sydney journalist: “None of the impressive things he said made any sense when (committed to paper) Standing in front of the Fiji paintings he talked of doom. “We’re out of sync with ourselves and nature”, He said. “We’re in a mess. The world has only got a few years to go
Outside it was the ultimate Sydney summer day with sailing boats skimming the harbour.
1970 saw the successful exhibition and sales of the Fijian paintings and what effectively amounted to the last album by the Beatles (Let it Be) and the death of Jimi Hendrix (after his last album, Band of Gypsies). Van Morrison was well on his way in American with Moon Dance. Whitely had turned his painterly attentions to Lavender Bay( Unauthorised 84). His wife, Wendy was doing her bit to keep them viable.
(Unauthorised 85) Wendy invented him: their his-her costumes,
fancy dress and style. He went from being a correctly dressed crew-cut lad to this quite exotic creature who wafted around in caftans.
She ensured that his studio was immaculate and she was always cooking. Wendy made the house into her own work of art and (Unauthorised 87) then set about turning the exhibition with American Dream at the Bonython Galleries into a happening. The Fijian paintings sold, but American Dream was still unwanted.
James Gleason of the Sun Herald newspaper claimed, “The texture of Brett’s art and the quality of his drawing had begun to coarsen. It is distinctly less exact, less refined, less pleasing than it was a few years ago. Whiteley’s sensationalism now contains an element of hysteria.
(Unauthorised 93) Brett was mining Wendy. He hated the fact that he loved her so much, the way she survived whatever he did to her. Brett constantly seduced new girls and Wendy had to win him back. Everything around him was cannibalised in the name of art. It was as though his childish appetite was getting out of control
Wendy’s retaliatory liaisons (with Peter Wright, a painter friend), practicing triangular emotional relationship would wreak havoc at another time and context.
(Fran talking about her brother as an artist - 220) Discussing Brett, art and drugs with John Olsen in 1995, John said that Brett ‘broke with tradition’, the European tradition on which much of our art was based, when he took on an ‘Asian’ narcotic. ‘Western painters are traditionally alcoholics’ said John. ‘My generation were wine drinkers in the Mediterranean sense.’ He remembered… (talking with Brett about ) the relations between art and drugs. ‘He wanted to sound me out. Brett said that people in New York were handling heroin and painting.
As our conversation drifted to poetry John corrected my preconceived notion that Coleridge wrote his best work under the influence of opium. ‘History has misrepresented Coleridge, his greatest poetry was written before opiates took hold’. This argument is uncomfortably allied to current critical thinking on my brother’s art. ‘The Muse doesn’t allow drugs,’ stated John, engaging my eyes. ‘drugs change the game, I don’t know if they deepened it’
Brett was alive and violated. He was a life giving person not only for his pictures but because of the value of his ideas. The implication of his talent had never before been seen in Australia – but he used this talent carelessly. His mistake was to try to become like the pop stars he admired, people less than he was.
When John Olsen had met Brett in 1961, Brett had already experienced the work of the masters through the scholarship which was the springboard of his career. Olsen said then that Brett was ‘so extraordinarily talented – he will turn us all around. He is so very young – we will have to wait and see.’ ‘Donald Friend, Drysdale and Paul Haefliger all loved his work, respected him’, said Olsen, who at the time also noted the force of Brett’s gifts and energy, the incredible precocity of his mind.
John Olsen talked about Brett’s instinct. This was solidly based on a traditional training, the study of old masters in books, a serious apprenticeship which began at the beginning and entailed hard work following the example of artists who had gone before. Brett’s intense study of the Italian masters during his two years on the scholarship developed his traditional training... From the art books of his childhood he now came face to face with familiar masterpieces. … Brett studied and drew from books. He learnt a language that was ‘hugely selective and always informed by the history of art. Picasso did the same thing.’... As well as drawing the faces of passengers on the ferry and view for his bedroom window, Brett was copying Rembrandt, Piero and Modigliani.
Renoir said, “Don’t look at nature – look at the Masters first.’ Brett had ‘instinctively looked at pictures first, had learnt a visual language first through the work of others’. Later when Renoir said, “Don’t copy nature – be its rival”, it was because he was versed and familiar with the ‘language’ stemming from the great traditions of Western art.
John Olsen believes that Brett painted birds as a refuge from his own violence, that America was a destructive influence on the impressionable young painter; that Alchemy and The America Dream are disasters because they are overloaded with ideas, a kind of cerebral imploding; the poet and the artist in distress. “The Zoo, Christie and Bathroom series are pure painting – drawing, draughtsmanship, paintings which go beyond ideas, beyond theology…to where an unknown God was with him.
In 1971 Geoffrey Bardon, a newly appointed school teacher encouraged the Aborigines who were living in the artificial conditions in Papunya to paint the tribal symbols that had been part of their religious and cultural rituals onto boards that could be sold as souvenirs to European tourists at the Alice Springs caravan park.
(Unauthorised 106 on Whiteley’s painting, Alchemy) The unfavourable critical reception (of his Portraits exhibition) had cut him to the quick, as had his wife’s apparently continuing liaison with his friend, the artist Peter Wright. These events induced in Brett overwhelming feelings of self-doubt and forced him into a corner where his subject matter was his own emotional landscape. It was in this context that he conceived the idea for his next major work. It was to be central to his career and to his view of life’s reality. Alchemy was the inspired title for the painting. It would result from an experimental process in which Brett transmuted the gross elements of his daily existence through intoxication into the gold of art. He saw himself as the medieval Alchemist at his furnace, surrounded by darkness, bellows in hand, room littered with flasks, crucible, distilling apparatus, ruby-coloured tinctures, pestle and mortar and hour glass. (Unauthorised 106 ) Ancient texts called the Alchemical process NIGREDEO – the dark night of the soul.
Jung – every psychic advance of man arises for the suffering of the soul.
Brett had wanted to do a painting for more than ten years which would aim for a version of surrealism. He wanted to speed up the images, slide them around, smelt them together from various references and chain them across a long area. Its impetus was his requirement to come up with an alternative form of language in his art - something he always avoided by returning to naturalism, the inspiration for Fiji: pure, plain iconography.(Laurie Tomas, ‘Alchemy with a Poetic Impact’, Australian 27/12/72)
Brett stated his objective in heightened language in the extensive notebook/diary which accompanied the work, It was to be a search for the transmutation of self. On what turned out to be the final panel of the work, he wrote his credo in oil and gold, “So what was the IT of alchemy”.
...So what was the IT of Alchemy?
Brett’s Sister (218): I had realised that all was not well in the Whitely marriage. Brett was sad and distracted. I had never seen this mood before. He was very distressed on morning at (our mother’s) relating a nightmare he’d had the night before which involved him walking in on Wendy and Michael Driscoll making love. That night…Wendy told me about Michael. – Irish, good poet, musician, singer, songwriter and Brett’s friend and confidante.
Brett’s Sister (218) Wendy was a woman in love with two men, with all the resultant emotional confusion and deceits.
Brett, who considered his marriage inviolate, had laid down certain rules for himself and different rules for Wendy. The basic tenets were that he could do as he pleased. But she was expected to be the faithful, dependable, ever-present muse and wife. At thirty-three he was firing off all cylinders and sexual freedom was one of the things he demanded from life. This double standard was the cause of deep division between him and Wendy, a moral argument that they were never able to resolve but which drove a wedge between them and in a sense ultimately destroyed the fabric of their marriage. He was stubborn and irrational on this and it ended up costing him his happiness. At the height of this insistent mucking-up with young girls, the hedonistic, selfish and ultimately meaningless quest for erotic pleasure, which he had in abundance at home, he found that he had lost the part of this life which he most valued. Wendy, out of the humiliation of Brett’s flagrant behaviour, combined with a need to re-establish her own womanliness, fell under the spell of Michael Driscoll, the Minstrel Boy. He invited her to be ‘part of his dream’ – a dream which she had been a part of for some time.
(Unauthorised 112) Brett was drinking whisky all the time. It fired him with electric energy...Driscoll would go round to the studio where Brett was working away at his major painting Alchemy in a frenzy...Whisky had become an inextricable part of his life. Some slices of the imagination unfurl exquisitely with alcohol or drugs. He was frozen with fear at the prospect that, without drugs, he wouldn’t be able to get at them. His addiction to alcohol paved the way for heroin, but it was Wendy’s affair with Driscoll that opened the floodgate.
Brett continued with Alchemy, the painting he was coming
to view as his punishment for loving a woman who no longer loved him back.
While working he was constantly aware of the inherent contradictions in what he
was doing, trying to express, and what he hoped would the outcome. “There was a
constant dichotomy between wanting to be loved and respect for what he did, and
the personal obligation to explore the essence of his being to the utmost –
even if it bought about his destruction.
...So what was the IT of Alchemy?
In the process, loneliness became a state of heightened spiritual awareness, self destruction a heroic stance. It was better to be unhappy than happy. “Happiness didn’t seem to be his destiny” he said. Perhaps there was an interregnum when an artist must probe and topple himself into the bottomless pit. If he could drag back out again, perhaps then it would be possible to put faith in someone other than himself. His wife!
Until his death, he would talk of the pain of watching her dress as she went off to meet her lover. “You have to paint the misery”, he told (another painter who had lost his wife). “Go and paint that thing now. This is the moment. If you don’t paint it you will never be a great painter”
Absorbed by Zen he read everything he could get his hands on - Alan Watts, Zen and the Art of Archery, The Tibetan Book of the Dead. These investigations were very serious for Brett, part of his spiritual quest the discover what is IT...
So what was the IT of Alchemy?
They were his way of coming to a way of dealing with reality, finding a way of crashing through the institutionalised lies, to come to some personal truth and express it through art., Alchemy was his expression of truth as he saw it a t the time.
The thing with Wendy and Driscoll was part of it. Brett needed to alter his perceptions more than ever to ease his suffering. Subsequently he said he didn’t think he drew a sober breath the entire year ...’
He painted furiously. All night, every night and all day during the Driscoll thing, unbelievable energy... He was so passionate, so jealous. Brett had lost his goddess. The lady he absolutely adored and cherished and maintained in the mansion didn’t know what she meant to him He was obsessed...
Driscoll: “Up to the time he started using, he was more inclined to the Francis Bacon aspect – his work was caustic, confronting, alcohol –based, fast and political
After a good while of intense heroin use, his painting changed and became like Matisse’s armchair. Matisse operated on the principle that a good painting should be like an armchair into which the tired businessman could sink on coming home from work. His concept is all to do whit joy and peace and colour. A Coleridge ecstasy. An opium dream,
Brett exhibited Alchemy but it did not sell. He had to use all his powers of flattery and persuasion to sell it himself.
Meanwhile, the affair with Driscoll continued like a bad seven year soap opera. Brett had the money so he paid for the heroin that they used to get out of the pain and frustration for a period. One almost gets the feeling that he knew he could outspend Driscoll on purchases of heroin, and that Wendy would become more dependent on heroin than on Driscoll.
Whatever the reason, Wendy finally kicked both the Driscoll and the heroin habit. Brett didn’t
So what was the IT of Alchemy?
(Unauthorised 100) Gleason likened Brett’s paintings to the musical show Hair. – Entertainment. – Trivialisation of once serious artistic talent. Conspicuous waste – integrity swamped by showmanship – works superficial and pretentious.
(Unauthorised 106) The subject matter of Alchemy was Whiteley’s OWN emotional landscape. It was...the experimental process in which “Brett transmuted the gross elements of his daily existence through intoxication into the gold of art
In recent years, the process of alchemy has been getting a better name.
Dante saw it as sinful. But not everyone else did. Isaac Newton, the archetype of the post Renaissance Enlightenment scientist was an alchemist. He also believed in the mortality of Jesus. Jesus was not a Dr Jekyl, untainted by the vices of Mr Hyde.
Hebrews 5:7-10 During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.
If we can take that quote at face value, it would seem that the virtues and vices of all humanity co-existed in Christ’s being.
It was the same process of atonement that all human beings undergo – the response to the joys and sorrows of life. They will either burn away the dross leaving the gold in situ, OR destroy the ore because it contained NO gold. Jesus went through the atonement process just like everyone else – his spirit contained the same spiritual gold and silver that had to be refined and the same dross that had to be destroyed by the same flames that were part of the refining process.
This purification was the ULTIMATE result of the refining process – LIFE ITSELF is the furnace. There may be more of less gold, more or less dross in the mix, but the interaction between the two is the ultimate persona that is displayed to the world when the mask drops.
The alchemists were essentially interested in the process. The final result merely provided ideas to put in the prospectus used to enlist investors.
Those interested solely in the transmutation were the equivalent of the people who only talk about the elementary teachings about Christ, the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. (Hebrews 6:1). Such people seek redemption in the painless inculcation of some external Holy Spirit - NOT the toils and tribulations of life. The painless injection of the Holy Spirit can be achieved, but only by those who are enabled, by the visions and dreams such as those received by the prophets, which enable them to KNOW GOD. If you go along with the idea that man is created in the image of god, then that amounts to the old philosopher’s dictum – know thyself
(Unauthorised 106 ) Ancient texts called the Alchemical process NIGREDEO – the dark night of the soul.
Jung – every psychical advance of man arises for the suffering of the soul.
Elihu summed it up pretty well in Job 33:14 - For God does speak—now one way, now another—
Method 1 – to the prophets...14 For God does speak—now one way, now another—though man may not perceive it. In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls on men as they slumber in their beds,
Method 2 – to everyone else
Or a man may be chastened on a bed of pain with constant distress in his bones, so that his very being finds food repulsive and his soul loathes the choicest meal. His flesh wastes away to nothing, and his bones, once hidden, now stick out. His soul draws near to the pit, and his life to the messengers of death.”
OK – all you people who want to talk about redemption. This is where it kicks in. This is the chance you get when you are down so low that “bottom looks like up”. But remember, the atoning experiences do not cease once the redemption kicks in. It is an ongoing refining process...
Yet if there is an angel on his side as a mediator, one out of a thousand, to tell a man what is right for him, to be gracious to him and say, 'Spare him from going down to the pit ; I have found a ransom for him'- then his flesh is renewed like a child's; it is restored as in the days of his youth. He prays to God and finds favour with him, he sees God's face and shouts for joy; he is restored by God to his righteous state.
Then he comes to men and says, 'I sinned, and perverted what was right, but I did not get what I deserved. He redeemed my soul from going down to the pit, and I will live to enjoy the light.'
"God does all these things to a man— twice, even three times- to turn back his soul from the pit, that the light of life may shine on him... be silent, and I will teach you wisdom
(Unauthorised 129) The Alchemy Exhibition was held in January 1973, just after the Labor Party that had been out of power for twenty years won the election under Gough Whitlam
Bruce Adams Sunday Telegraph (Unauthorised 132) Alchemy was a welter of disparate images, intrusive, inconclusive. It defied any attempt to elicit from it a logical structure – proclaiming an enormous transformation about to happen in Australia: the move from white techno consciousness to a more essential yet elevated Asian concept of being.
But not everyone was convinced
Puts too many questions without answers. Overplay an outmoded expressionism of aggressiveness, self pity, false tragedy and accepts too readily the role of apprentice pseudo intellectual
(Unauthorised 103).There were children, cats, a dog and variously strange shaped parcels. In silence, glasses in their hands, they gazed up at the wondrous panels of Alchemy. “It’s their form of homage to Brett”, said John Olsen
(Unauthorised 132) The writing on it doesn’t always make sense – but because it was Brett Whiteley, people would spend a long time trying to understand what it was all about. People like it and that gave Brett a great boost.
Laurie Thomas (Australian) was touched and moved by it, “Earthy but somehow transmuted into dream and air. It means pretty well everything Whiteley can put his arms around and something beyond
Donald Brook SMH “Nineteenth century exoticism and metaphysical pretension perfectly unintelligible, however sonorous
After a period of being generally unloved, Whiteley purchased it back.
I thought I could mess with certain powers and it ruined me in a way; got me onto dope…fucked me up for five to seven years. So I bought it back to re-own the thing that I didn’t know I was doing. By repossessing Alchemy I’ve beaten the thing that fucked me up
It was his last major work before heroin possessed him
The Driscoll-Wendy-Brett soap opera lasted for seven years and Michael was the loser. Brett used to say to him, ‘Go and get your own woman – this one’s mine’. The three of them would sometimes appear publicly, always arriving very late and usually stoned. I realized later that they were all using smack.
He began using ‘chemicals’ as he like to call them, to take away his pain. And he liked it
Brett and Wendy become Lavender Bay recluse junkies
(Brett’s Sister...254) Smack had become a controlling influence on Brett’s promiscuous tendencies; off it, his eye would start wandering, on it he was tamed. Arguments between Wendy and Brett about the nature of freedom – freedom for him – were perennial, surfacing when they were straight, submerging when they were using. One could be forgiven for concluding that his ‘albino rainbow’ as he called it, was a moderating element in the expression of his considerable sexual enthusiasm.
(Unauthorised 147) McGrath “he once believed painting would change the world –American Dream didn’t do anything. He had realised his painting would change nothing. If Wendy wasn’t there as a muse it was pointless. Just money. Pictures for what?. What’s the point?
(Unauthorised 162) Brett had begun to see the artist’s role as increasingly MORAL. Images had to be morally specific rather than arbitrary or random. If an artist is not told in his mind to work a certain way, the work will be merely decorative Art is the purest form of spiritual intelligence and any explanations that attempt to astonish or amuse or clarify always devalue confuse or just simply defile
(Unauthorised 170) Increasingly Brett’s art was moving away from the fashionable trends towards the style of Lloyd Rees and Bill Pidgeon – the generation of artists he had know as a boy. His work fetched unprecedented prices and continued to be idolised by the media and a particular segment of art collectors. But if the press was to be believed, the contemporary art game had passed him by.
Fashionable artists were moving into Post Modernism
(Unauthorised 177) The Recent Nudes exhibition benefitted from the recession. The punters moved money out of short term money market. Whitley was still bankable but the big prices were over.
His paintings became softer, more decorative, moving towards the softness of Graeme Townsend’s whimsical giraffes, Tim Storrier’s flags and Ray Crocker’s tropical landscapes.
(Unauthorised 186) A retrospective organised by the New South Wales Art Gallery Exhibition received hostile reviews.
So what was the IT of Alchemy?
(Unauthorised 173) At the beginning of February 1982, the action started.. The Sydney Morning Herald indicated that the award-winning blue and gold painting would turn the base metals in the art market to gold when the celebrated view from Lavender Bay went on sale in several weeks (the real alchemy)
Brett’s star shone brightest in Sydney with his harbour scenes, his vivid blues and yellows, his landscape splashed with colour redolent of sunny sexy places. Melbourne was never much interested. Home to John Brack, Fred Williams and Leonard French, it tended to turn up its nose with faint mocking laughter.
(Brett’s Sister 349) Wendy spent a year in London away from Brett and became drug free. (357) Brett, the old-fashioned boy, had always idealised the institution of marriage. He had admired marriages that stayed together. Watching the distress his own divorce was causing him, a divorce which he alone had instigated, I asked, ‘Why are you doing this, what is the point?’ He said, ‘I want to be rid of it, I want to be free.’
My brother had always left the complex issues of tax, dealing with unwanted people or phone calls, answering mail or the door, talking to directors and dealers – all the levels of taking care of business in the Brett Whiteley industry –to his wife. He was the archetypical protected artist. For almost three decades Wendy had looked after his every need, buying his clothes, mending them, running his affairs so that he could work in peace. On top of that she was his model, muse and critic. He was, in every sense of the word, spoilt. He always had the utmost respect for her opinions about everything and anything. They enjoyed arguing and you knew he was always listening to her. He admired her intelligence and her gifts for of organization. He felt safe with her and the living was easy.
Despite the security he chose to leave, Brett felt that Wendy and he had come to the end of the karma together. He just didn’t want it anymore. This cruel decision, formulated in his head for some time, was finally brought out into the open en route to England.
(Brett’s Sister 259) He was using more and more heavily as a situation he could no longer control closed around him.
There had always been a strong element of the ‘controlling female’ in his life and though he complained about it constantly, I felt that is was something he needed. Our mother and Wendy were both ‘controllers’ and in this Brett seemed to find security, as well as something against which he could rebel. As a man who had never completely recovered form the ‘abandonment’ of his mother when first she put him in boarding school and later left Clem and the home she had created to live overseas, it was oddly out of character for him to jettison his power base – the wife-mother, the ‘Queen’, the woman who protected and nurtured him. The Oedipal influences that constructed his life were always there, the deep and abiding love of the mother. Why then did he risk damaging himself by destroying the thing which made him strong, make him whole?
Brett’s love of the women in his life is a clue to his emotional make-up. He liked the language of ‘mothering’; Brett said that Lloyd Rees didn’t look at landscape – he ‘milked’ it. The sensuality he saw in landscape – breasts, buttocks, cunts – all related to the ‘mother’. His own mother, the abiding safe love of his life, the woman on who he lavished artworks and financial generosity, the woman he ran to, rang and talked to constantly, the one who he told of all his triumphs and losses, would always be there.
When he removed himself from Wendy, Brett began his decline.
(Brett’s Sister 367) The man who loved women got very tired of women’s talk, the sound of women’s voices in his ears, demand and expectations.
The significance of Rover Thomas’s art lies perhaps not only in the manner in which it is produced but equally in his role as dreamer and owner of a major innovative ceremony that has become synonymous with aboriginal people of the East Kimberley. The revelation to Rover Thomas of the Krill Krill ceremony, its associated songs and pictorial imagery, can be seen as a culture reaffirmation through interpretation of contemporary events that shroud an ancient landscape. It also led to the formation of a school of painting now recognised as distinctly that of the East Kimberley
At a time when the relevance of tradition cultural practices, belief and values is believed by many outsiders to be compromised and eroded, the Krill Krill ceremonies and the artistic movement they engender reveal that ancestral culture continues to be relevant, and to flourish in the context of the modern world. Art is seen by the artists as a means of maintaining indigenous thought while incorporating and rationalising the creative period, the ethnographic and historic past and the contemporary realities of the late twentieth century...( Rover Thomas Exhibition Catalogue 3)
(Exhibition Catalogue 22)The Krill Krill ceremony was revealed to Rover Thomas in 1975 in a series of visitations he received from the spirit of a recently deceased classificatory mother, a Kija Wuta speaker. The spirit recounts her travels across the landscape after her death.
Shtorly before Christmas, 1974, the woman had been in a vehicle accident that had occurred adjacent to the Turkey Creek airstrip. The vehicle taking a party of people had been returning from Halls Creek to Doon Doon (Dunham Rivers station) when it had ploughed into a flooded stretch of road and rolled.
The critically injured woman was taken first to Wyndham by vehicles and then evacuated by the Royal Flying Doctor Service to Perth.
As the plane flew across the western Kimberley coastline she succumbed to her injuries. It is said the she died as the plane flew over the site of the whirlpool Tawurrkurrima/Jintiripul off the coast of Derby. The whirlpool is both the home and the physical manifestation of the Rainbow Serpent...that imbue the Kimberley landscapes with eternal life
During Rover Thomas’s visitations, the spirit of the deceased woman describes its journey, initially accompanied by a companion spirit, Jimpi, who is later replaced by another spirit called Manginta. The spirits visit many sites of either sacred or historical importance across the Kimberley. These sites fall into the territories of a number of disparate language groups. From Kununurra the spirits witness the destruction of Darwin by a Rainbow Serpent in the guise of Cyclone Tracy
The Rainbow Serpent is associated with the creation myths of many of the Aboriginal inhabitants. Cyclone Tracy has worked its way into the consciousness of both Aboriginal and later settlers. It was a wind storm that destroyed much of Australia’s northernmost city on Christmas Eve in 1974 – about the time of the accident that took the life of the lady whose death forms the basis of the Krill Krill story.
The circumstances in which Rover Thomas received the story were recorded in an interview he gave before attending the Venice Biennale in 1990. The details and the ceremony he devised to be performed by tribal aborigines are recorded in the catalogue of the Roads Cross exhibition (Rover Thomas Exhibition Catalogue 22-27). Thomas devised the basic format for a series of paintings associated with the ceremony. They were painted in collaboration with or by Paddy Jaminji, his mother’s brother and others (Exhibition Catalogue 28-39). They include what might be referred to as European style pictorial symbols, as opposed to the purely tribal designs of the Papunya school of painting. As with the massacre paintings, they exude a liveliness and structural loveliness that gives them a presence that remains in the mind of the viewer. Those depictions of metaphysical ideas leave an impression in the consciousness, even on those mindsets that have been left devoid of any notions of a spiritual reality by a life time of post Enlightenment, materialist culture.
Brett Whiteley: Is
this the end, beautiful friend the end?
Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
I'll never look into your eyes...again (The End...The Doors)
In 1985 Whiteley exhibited his Drawings 1960-1985. Wendy spent a year in London away from Brett and became drug free (Brett’s Sister 349)
(Unauthorised 204) In 1986 another symbolic figure was arriving, someone else who understood narcotic oblivion and had used drugs to obliterate consciousness. When Bob Dylan came to town ... Brett was frantic about what to ask his hero., He sweated on it for weeks before the Great Man arrived, while friends contrived to have Dylan’s press conference held at Brett’s ‘stude’ in Surry Hills. Not that he wanted friends crashing his party, They were warned off... It was Sydney’s most exclusive press conference. Media groups turned up in throngs to catch a glimpse of Bob Dylan. They were barred at the door. Patti Mostyn, Sydney’s PR seprema, was ruthless.
...Brett was wound up. They were all shaking before they went in. He convened a little meeting. ‘We’ve got to ask his something, man’, Brett said. ‘It’s got to the right question’....”He was thrilled to have Dylan there, said Kate McClymont, ( one of the journalists) ‘ but was also desperate for Dylan to respond and understand what he was on about”
It was assumed that Dylan would be late. Black-tied waiters offering sandwiches kept the hacks distracted and no risks were taken by way of drinks (Unauthorised 205), noted journalist, Evan Whitton. ‘It was apple juice, tomato juice, orange juice or Perrier water.’
The guru sat on a large leather sofa behind the enormous egg on its nest of sticks on a brass pedestal. Dylan was small and middle-aged, with dark, frizzy hair and an air of melancholy weariness, according to Whitton. “He wore jeans tucked into large boots, a black leather jerkin revealing a small expanse of largely hairless body, an earring...’ He fiddled continually with a large ring that boasted a huge blue stone. He didn’t reveal what he thought of the studio and the millions of dollars worth of art lying around.
The photographers were give twelve seconds to do their work. A short –lived blaze of flashbulbs. Then the questions. Dylan was asked why he said that if the 1960’s were the years of protest, the 1970’s and 1980’s were the years of masturbation? “Is that something I said?’ he replied. ‘Jesus! I don’ know where I could have been that day.’ According to Kate McClymont, Dylan ‘did a great imitation of a Venus Fly Trap with journalists being the flies. ’Our questions were gulped down with barely a flicker of recognition that they’d been asked, and barely a burp was returned.
Finally, it was Brett’s turn. “It was as if Brett believed a cosmic collision of personalities was about to take place,’ said McClymont. ‘He wanted verification from Dylan about his own sources of inspiration and his benediction, his divine worship’
Brett went for it. “How much of your music is pulled up from your subconscious?’ he asked. Dylan replied that he used to pull a lot up from there, but it was getting less now. Brett was encouraged. “How much’, do you feel you are a medium or vessel for God, or some higher power?’ Brett waited while Dylan paused. “That ‘s the way it mostly happens, although you may not know it at the time.’
Then it was time for the big one. ‘Who from history would you most like to have been?’, he said, pressing his luck. ‘I don’t know,’ said his hero.
At this point, Evan Whitton from the Sydney Morning Herald noted, ‘Mr Whiteley retired from the room’.
In 1989 Brett commenced divorce proceedings against the heroin free Wendy
(Brett 357) Brett, the old-fashioned boy, had always idealised the institution of marriage. He had admired marriages that stayed together. Watching the distress his own divorce was causing him, a divorce which he alone had instigated, I asked, ‘Why are you doing this, what is the point?’ He said, ‘I want to be rid of it, I want to be free.’
Brett was productive during the next decade and form 1980 to 1990 he held a dozen successful shows. He was, in fact, stoned or otherwise, incapable of a show that wasn’t a success. Experts and critics will argue for a long time about the influence, good or bad, that drugs had on his work. The point is he worked, he worked and he worked, and a large number of great painting and sculpture came from this hand.
Robert Hughes, whom Brett deeply respected, said that Brett hadn’t painted anything really good since 1973 which, though I’m sure he didn’t know it then, was about the time the Whiteleys started using .
…It created a dilemma for Brett as he also held Hughes in the highest esteem; he was the one critic you never heard Brett dismissing. He was also the one critic who could really hurt. Brett didn’t talk about what Bob had to say because he always knew that Bob could be right.
In 1992 Brett misjudged the purity of the heroin dose and died
(Brett’s Sister 370) Brett wanted deeply to believe in the Higher Power, the Power of God that is fundamental to Narcotics Anonymous’ belief that an addict can be cured. I think that from the childhood, with his love of churches, Brett was looking for that elusive principle But that particular mystery was withheld from him. Or he didn’t want it enough. When Dylan found God I think Brett felt somehow cheated; but he knew this stuff couldn’t be face and God never did give a hand.
(ep 398) From the moment he decided to fight (the divorce settlement he was lost – it was only matter of time. His death, in the end, became nothing to him, a quiet relinquishing of the struggle and, one could almost say, a form of victory for her. Brett, the nuggetty larrikin show-off and fighter, proved not to be a survivor.
Under the tough exterior lay an extremely sensitive man-boy with the blood of poets and musicians in his veins. Separated from his muse, his central love, his wife, he had to live his own Ribaudian season in hell. Death itself was a denial of his own nature. He got tired, that’s all.