Brett Whiteley & The Three-Dimensional Realm

Following their return to Australia in the 1970s, Brett and Wendy Whiteley purchased Lavender Bay house – the artist’s own paradise. Brett took new inspiration from his living room window looking out upon the visual ecstasy of Lavender Bay, which not only culminated in his iconic 1974 exhibition at Australian Galleries, but also marked the beginning of Whiteley’s ‘mature’ phase as a painter. For many of us, the name Brett Whiteley is synonymous with the two-dimensional painted medium, however, objects around him constantly inspired the artist, and this is evident in his oeuvre.

Brett once commented on his keen interest in sculpture, noting that it is the “bounce between” painting and sculpture that constantly intrigued him. It is through this dialogue that the two mediums correlate and harmonise, with discoveries in one form finding their expression in the other. He did not limit his expression to one material, often experimenting with wood, bronze, plaster, ceramic, fibreglass and even found objects.

In his Lavender Bay home, the artist took inspiration from this new stable domestic environment. Vases and ceramics often feature in his painted studio scenes, and so adhering to this “bounce between” his painted creations also appear on three-dimensional ceramic forms. He collaborated with a number of Australian potters including Derek Smith, Shigeo Shiga, and John Dellow, producing a variety of vases, plates and other ceramic vessels drawn with calligraphic gestures in blue glaze over a white porcelain background.

There is evidently a clear inspiration drawn from Asian ceramics, both in the choice of blue and white as well as the calligraphic brushwork. Similar to the dichotomy between painting and sculpture, Brett’s affinity with calligraphy was formed around his observations that “calligraphy’s poetry simply comes down to being the discrepancy between seeing and feeling”. His fluid brushwork across all mediums reflects a lyrical response to the calligraphic style.

Although he greatly admired the Zen philosophy of the East, he did not travel first-hand to many of the countries who promote this aesthetic, therefore much of his inspiration was through external sources. However, Australian visual culture in general from the 1960’s had been infiltrated by an Asian aesthetic, in particular the brushwork of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, and so Whiteley’s access to such sources of inspiration would have been abundant. Photographic records and even paintings of the period that document the artist’s home and studio allow us insight into these sources with vases, books, tapestries, and painted scrolls inhabiting his immediate surroundings.

Brett’s extraordinary gift for form was not limited to the pencil and brush, but extended into the three-dimensional realm. Whilst sculptures and ceramics are amongst some of Brett’s most thoughtful and unique creations, they can sadly be overlooked when reviewing his artistic merits.

Olivia Fuller
Art Specialist