“There’s a lovely Zen melancholia that I’m after really.”
Billed as “The Face that Stops a Nation” the annual Archibald Prize for portraiture along with its handmaidens the Wynne and Sulman Prizes are considered to be the pinnacle of Australian art. The winning of one of these awards is a confirmation by the Australian arts establishment of the artist’s ability.
The Australian painter, Brett Whiteley has won each of these awards twice. And in 1978 he became the only artist, in the award’s 94 year history, to win this trifecta of artistic excellence all in the same year. The multimedia work Art, Life, and The Other Thing (see above) was his winning entry.
But Whiteley was no stranger to art awards. He won the art competition in the annual RSPCA exhibition at Farmer’s Blaxland Gallery at the age of seven.
Whilst maintaining Australia as his base, Whiteley had a career that spanned the world from London to New York via Fiji, Tokyo, Bali and Paris producing a body of work that ranged from the abstract to the figurative, from the landscape to reportage. About which the art critic Robert Hughes wrote “The fact that Whiteley could take a subject so loaded with journalistic associations, and turn it into art, is the measure of his power for transformation.”
As he said in the 1989 documentary Difficult Pleasure: A Portrait of Brett Whiteley. “Go to an art supply house and get some ink and some paper and pens and a calligraphy brush and some charcoal and aim at virtually at whatever’s in front of you, the subject matter is not that important and then try and cheat and deceive and lie and exaggerate and most particularly distort as absolutely as extremely as you can and after some six months or a year or usually in a state of extreme frustration you will see something you truly never seen before and that is the beginning of yourself and that heralds the beginning of difficult pleasure.”
Whiteley died from a self-administered heroin overdose in 1992 at the age of 53.
Whiteley’s 18 piece installation The American Dream is currently on show at the Art Gallery of Western Australia until the 15th of February 2016.