Guest Curator: Sasha Grishin, an expert on George Baldessin and Brett Whiteley

Social Justice Issues. Comments on the Human Condition and Heroin Addiction.

Baldessin/Whiteley were two major figures in the story of 20th Century art. Both born in Australia in 1939, they had much in common. ‘Both experienced early success in their respective careers; both were figurative expressionists, attracted to popular culture, and the avant-garde and existentialist ideas; and both were innovative in their use of mediums and brilliantly provocative in their artistic language. They created art that epitomised their epoch, both men died young.’ Whiteley of a heroin overdose.

‘Baldessin/Whiteley: Parallel Visions brings together some of the artists’ most iconic works alongside many that have never been exhibited before. There are masterpieces from Whiteley’s Christie series and Baldessin’s enticing etchings which redefined for a generation of Melbournians their attitudes to eroticism and the urban environment.’

George Baldessin and Brett Whiteley threw down challenges, and offered new ways of seeing and of understanding our common humanity.

‘At a time when figurative art was under attack in some quarters, Baldessin and Whiteley employed the human figure as a vehicle through which to comment on the human condition – on the afflictions of the present and on questions of the eternal.’

Both had international reputations and their works were acquired by leading public galleries around the world.

Baldessin and Whiteley travelled on parallel and ultimately tragic trajectories. Both artists died prematurely. Baldessin in an alcohol-fuelled single-vehicle automobile accident on 9 August 1978, Whiteley through a self-administered dose of heroin on 15 June 1992.

In June 1964 Baldessin held his first solo exhibition in Melbourne which drew national acclaim. Later a solo exhibition was held at the Rudy Komon Gallery. The exhibitions were large: in Melbourne there were nine large bronzes, five small bronzes, six drawings and nineteen sophisticated and complex etchings. Alan McCulloch, in reviewing the exhibition, observed: ‘He has certainly made the most impressive debut of any Australian-born sculptor in the last 20 years.’

It was around this time that Baldessin and Whiteley were referred to as two emerging parallel talents in the Australian arts scene.

Baldessin’s work was edgy, the figures bulbous, dislocated in planes, biomorphic and generally lacking in any anatomical coherence.

Whiteley was still on his honeymoon in France during the Tate’s Francis Bacon retrospective which opened in May 1962. It had had a profound impact on Baldessin. On his return to London Whiteley’s work indicated a fundamental and gradual change was taking place as he began to leave behind abstraction and pursue a path to figuration. Gradually, for Whiteley, it was Bacon who overshadowed all of the other voices and became a dominant figure in Whiteley’s art.

It was in 1964 that Whiteley commenced a major series of work that has served to define him as an artist. He adopted as a subject the recent grisly activities of a local serial sex murderer. He had resided very close to Whiteley. Over the course of ten years, Christie killed nine, possible ten people and concealed their bodies under floorboards in the house. Much of 1965 was spent working on images of zoo animals while simultaneously working on the Christie series.

Mental illness and morbid eroticism were prevailing themes in the Christie series as Whiteley forensically researched the killings. Whiteley found a starting point in the sick mind of Christie, and Baldessin found inspiration in Bergman’s ‘Sawdust and Tinsel’ – both explored the world of the outsider and the social misfit who gave identity to their existence through extreme actions.

Both Baldessin and Whiteley looked to Bacon and Goya as sources of inspiration and guidance in the use of the human figure cast within a setting of extreme violence and humanity.

The Baldessins returned to Melbourne in February 1977. Baldessin continued to make work at an accelerated pace, with solo shows in Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne. He received various commissions, including the set of monumental doors for the High Court of Australia in Canberra as a joint commission with Les Kossatz. In 1978 he was killed in a car accident.

The Whiteleys arrived in New York in September 1967 and immediately settled into the penthouse at the Hotel Chelsea. In New York, it appears that Whiteley sought to create a single work, a chef d’oeuvre, that would capture the spirit of America – its essence and current dilemma. ‘The American Dream’, 1968-9 is a sprawling 22 metre painted, all-enveloping installation, a kaleidoscopic image bringing together all that was good and bad in America at the time. Whiteley’s art dealers from Marlborough and Leo Castelli rejected the painting, and Whiteley simply fled New York by plane to Fiji.

By 1970 Whiteley’s reputation had become primarily an Australian one. The reviewers soured. The writer Patrick White, who was friends with Whiteley and Bacon, cautiously noted at the time in a letter to Whiteley, ‘the awful social and commercial rackets in Australia will try to kill your genius as they have picked off many lesser talents; I hope you will be strong enough to hold out against them’.

In 1973 the Whiteleys travelled to Africa, spending most of their time in Ethiopia. They went on to London and France. A new drug – heroin – had entered Brett and Wendy’s life and had started to make increasing demands on their health and finances. In periods of clarity, Whiteley painted some of his very popular studio interiors and views of Lavender Bay and was receiving great popular acclaim from the Sydney and Melbourne media.

The last decade of Whiteley’s life was punctuated by frequent travel abroad, spectacular commercial success with exhibitions in Australia, growing critical condemnation, a divorce, constant but unsuccessful attempts at rehabilitation and finally death in a motel room. He was 53.

Extracts from ‘Baldessin/Whiteley: Parallel Visions, National Gallery of Victoria, Australia. Sasha Grishin and Contributors.

This exhibition is outstanding. I was in awe of the work by both artists in particular, Baldessin’s sculptures and Whiteley’s ‘Christie’ series. I spent two hours working my way through the exhibition.

I could engage in an analysis of the works but criticisms like this can end up as a quasi-intellectual rants which really serve no-one.

The best possibility is to engage with the works yourself and try to ‘get at’ their essence.

Dianne Edwards


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