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Brett Whiteley

Photograph by Greg Weight:

Greg Weight, Portrait of Brett Whiteley, 1976, gelatin silver on fibre-based paper. Image courtesy of Greg Weight and the National Library of Australia

Brett Whiteley is one of Australia's most revered artists.  His lyrical expressionism and lack of inhibition placed him at the forefront of Australia's avant-garde art movement.  He won many prizes and awards and his work hangs in numerous galleries, including the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, the Tate Gallery in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Whiteley was born 1939 in Sydney, New South Wales, and grew up in Longueville, a harbourside suburb in north Sydney.  By the age of seven had won his first art competition.  He was sent to boarding school at Scots College, Bathurst and in 1956 was awarded first prize in the Young Painters' section of the Bathurst Show.  He left school mid-year and took night classes in drawing at the Julian Ashton Art School in Sydney while holding down a job at an advertising agency.

Experiences abroad

In 1960, aged 21, Whiteley left Australia on a Travelling Art Scholarship (judged by Sir Russell Drysdale at the Art Gallery of New South Wales), and by 1961 had settled in London where his work was shown at the Whitechapel and Marlborough galleries.  In London he met many other painters, including fellow Australians, Arthur Boyd and John Passmore.

Photograph by Greg Weight:

Greg Weight, Portrait of Brett Whiteley, 1973, gelatin silver on fibre-based paper.
Image courtesy of Greg Weight and the National Library of Australia

His reputation grew world-wide with his success in winning the international prize at the second Biennale de Paris (International Biennale for Young Artists) in 1962, the same year he had his first one-man exhibition at the Matthiesen Gallery.  Around this time he married Wendy Julius at a Chelsea Registry Office in London, a marriage that would last for over 25 years.

Whiteley's painting developed rapidly during his time overseas.  His abstract and fluid style turned increasingly to figuration, and his paintings became laced with images of sex and violence.  His work began to incorporate collage elements such as fibreglass shapes and photographs.  He exhibited widely during these years, including in Australia, France, Belgium and Italy.

In 1967 he exhibited at the Pittsburgh International Carnegie Institute in the United States and was awarded the Harkness Foundation Scholarship.  He lived in New York for 18 months and returned permanently to Australia in 1969 after a brief stay in Fiji.

Recognition at home and abroad

Photograph by Greg Weight:

Greg Weight, Portrait of Brett Whiteley in his studio, 1971, gelatin silver. Image courtesy of Greg Weight and the National Library of Australia

By the beginning of the seventies Whiteley was involved with The Yellow House artist's community in Potts Point, Sydney and was seen as one of the leading lights of the avant-garde art movement.

In 1972 he began work on Alchemy and by the following January it was complete.  It was exhibited at the Bonython Gallery in Sydney.  This incredible work was interpreted as an allegory of life's journey, from birth to death, and the ultimate transmutation.

He exhibited at The World Expo in Washington in 1974 and, ominously, stated in an interview to Philip Adams that he had 'moved from alcohol to more serious mind altering chemicals'.

Whiteley's acclaim continued to grow throughout the seventies and eighties.  In 1975 he was awarded the Sir William Angliss Memorial Art Prize.  In 1976 he won his first Archibald Prize with Self-portrait in the studio and the Sir John Sulman Prize for Interior with Time Past (genre painting).

In 1977 he won the Wynne Prize for The Jacaranda Tree (On Sydney Harbour), and in 1978 became the only Australian artist ever to claim the Archibald, Sulman and Wynne art prizes – a unique treble.

He was awarded the Wynne Prize again in 1984, and the following year purchased an old T-shirt factory in Surry Hills, Sydney and converted it into a studio.  Further renovations followed and in later years the downstairs gallery area was repainted and now houses changing exhibitions.  In 1991 he was awarded the Order of Australia (General Division).

In the last years of his life Whiteley travelled far and wide, taking in England, Bali, Tokyo, and spending two months in Paris in an apartment on Rue de Tournon.  On 15 June 1992 he was found dead from a heroin overdose in a motel room in Thirroul on the NSW coast.  The coroner's verdict was 'death due to self-administered substances'.  He was 53 years old.

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Last updated: 15th May 2007
Creators: ACME

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