Important Australian + International Fine Art
29 August 2007


(1939 - 1992)

oil, ink, mirror and razor on board

221.5 x 167.5 cm

signed and dated lower right: Brett 68
inscribed upper left: The departure of Gauguin from arles, December 1888.....

$1,000,000 - 1,500,000
Sold for $1,020,000 (inc. BP) in Auction 2 - 29 August 2007, Melbourne

Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, New York (labels attached verso)
Michael D. Abrams Esq. Collection, New York Christie's, Sydney, 6 December 1994, lot 128
Marlborough Fine Art, London
Sotheby's, Melbourne, 28 April 1997, lot 163
Private collection, Melbourne


Brett Whiteley - Recent Work, Malborough-Gerson Gallery, New York, May - June 1968, cat.3 (cover illustration)
Another Way of Looking at Vincent van Gogh 1888 - 1889 by Brett Whiteley 1968 - 1983, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 4 July - 21 August 1983, cat.5
Brett Whiteley: Art and Life, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney and touring major state galleries throughout Australia, 1995 - 1996, cat.116


Capon, E., Another Way of Looking at Vincent van Gogh 1888 - 1889 by Brett Whiteley 1968 - 1983, Richard Griffin Press, Melbourne, 1983, p.8 (illus.)
McGrath, S., Brett Whiteley, Bay Books, Sydney, 1979, p.19
Pearce, B. et. al., Brett Whiteley: Art and Life, Thames and Hudson in association with the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1995, pp. 164, 175 & pl.116 (illus.)

Catalogue text

'...The essential point is that Whiteley sees in van Gogh qualities of strength, hope, pathos and pictorial imagery that are as enduring as the art itself. What is perhaps more important though, is that in doing so, expressing and re-expressing the qualities and experiences which he sees in the work of van Gogh he is exploiting and expanding his own vision and capacity...'1

The brief and tragic life of Vincent van Gogh represents arguably one of the most pervasive myths in modern popular culture. As the psychologically troubled, impoverished 'genius' obsessively dedicated to his art, indeed he encapsulates the time-honoured Romantic notion of the 'artist as hero' - a tradition which typically indulges the emotions, relishes sensuality, demands frailty and extols extremism. That this luminary brilliance was only appreciated by society after his untimely death - with his works today among the most highly coveted in the world - serves to further magnify the power and poignancy of the legend.

Seduced by the dual attractions of art and life, illusion and reality, that the Dutch master had so ardently pursued nearly a century earlier, it was inevitable that Whiteley too would eventually draw inspiration as much from the personal mythology of van Gogh as his revolutionary aesthetic. Identifying with the Dutchman's professed addictive personality and particularly, his dichotomous vision which oscillated constantly between lyrical enchantment and violent tension, the young Antipodean would not only make a pilgrimage to Arles in an attempt to truly savour the aura and environment of his spiritual and artistic mentor. Moreover, he would dedicate almost fifteen years of his life to paying homage to his 'hero' with a suite of paintings, sculptures and works on paper which, as exemplified by Vincent, 1968, remain among the most commanding and critically acclaimed of his career.

Brett Whiteley first encountered the art of van Gogh as a thirteen-year old boarder at Scot's College, Bathurst where, during the routine excursion to St Stephen's Presbyterian Church one Sunday morning, he chanced upon a book left behind in one of the pews. As Whiteley himself later acknowledged, this mysterious discovery would completely transform his life: ' was wonder. Every page was just amazing. It was the first I had heard of, much less seen, anything of van Gogh. I had never believed anything like that could exist. I almost felt that I had done it, or a part of me had. There was some connectiveness of soul. I understood it. It was right... The immediate effect was a heightening of reality, in that everything I looked at took on an intensity - an 'expandingness' - that only later did I recognise as very similar to the experience of L.S.D. That morning, returning to school by bus, I remember the poplar trees were bare for winter; they now seethed with new lines, they were thickets of energy.'2

Although it would be years before Whiteley ever attempted to articulate in paint that which he perceived in van Gogh's vision, the experience had the immediate effect of liberating him from the inflicted boredom, loneliness and mediocrity of institutional life; as he recalled,'...I remember having this very, very powerful sense that my destiny was to completely give myself to painting " that I would be a painter and it was a remarkable moment of knowing that.'3


Upon his arrival in New York nearly fifteen years later in 1967, Whiteley's childhood fascination would be rekindled amidst the'van Gogh mania' then engulfing the city. The Metropolitan Museum of Art had recently unveiled the bequest of a celebrated self-portrait by Van Gogh; in November 1967, the nearby Philadelphia Museum of Art hosted a landmark exhibition of over 90 watercolours and drawings by the artist which attracted widespread acclaim and record attendances; and almost contemporaneously, Time Magazine featured an article about a fanatical Los Angeles sculptor who had cast a life-size head of van Gogh, intending to offer the sculpture as a gift to the city of Arles.4 As a good friend of Francis Bacon, Whiteley would moreover almost certainly have been conversant with the British artist's own passionate tribute to van Gogh ten years earlier - particularly given that one of these paintings which Bacon had considered'follies', Study for Portrait of Van Gogh IV, had been presented to the Tate by the Contemporary Art Society in 1958, and was exhibited during the early 1960s when Whiteley was living in London.

In America, Whiteley also confronted an agonised cauldron of change. As Barry Pearce observes, '...old values were being challenged by new, edifices of political power and ideology undermined by protests and assassinations, and alternative lifestyles extolled by writers and poets of the beat generation. The Vietnam War was at its worst, and the lines of battle between Americans themselves were dr across the whole spectrum of society.'5 At first, Whiteley loved it, comparing the city of New York to'a living sculpture', but he soon began to fear America as well " its internecine violence, its potential to destroy, and above all, its indifference to other cultures. Attributing the decline of portraiture and its near elimination from contemporary art to precisely this troubled and technologically-dominated world - 'Portraiture is in trouble because man is'6 - thus Whiteley embarked upon a compelling series of portraits as means of honouring and announcing figures in art, history, music and philosophy who, together with family members, had influenced his own thinking or inspired his emotions.

Featured in his first exhibition in New York, staged at Marlborough-Gerson Gallery in May-June 1968, these'hero' paintings included two works dedicated to Bob Dylan; two to Gauguin; one to Brendan Behan, and the present, to van Gogh. Attempting to elucidate the enigmatic relationship between mind and flesh, spirit and matter, the portraits were unprecedented in their extraordinary incorporation of every imaginable creative device - from fiberglass, oil paint and photography to music, electricity, steel, barbed wire, live flowers, even stuffed animals. Indeed, while reviewers appreciated the apparent consistency of Whiteley's moral and political messages, and admired especially his drawings of lovers copulating, the tenuous construction of many of the works exhibited saw a good number consigned to oblivion.

One of the few that survived, Vincent, 1968 represents the earliest, and arguably most impressive, of Whiteley's tributes to van Gogh. Constructed around a floating head adapted from the Dutch master's numerous selfportraits, the composition is punctuated with specific allusions to van Gogh's life at Arles - that tumultuous period during which the artist not only produced more than 200 paintings over fifteen months, but began to suffer from extreme hallucinations and depression, culminating in the severance of his right ear after a quarrel with Gauguin. Accordingly, here the head is linked to an open razor by a serpentine blood track, while zoom-lines relate the portrait to an Arles drawing executed in the manner of van Gogh and a collaged, double-headed arrow pointing to the words 'Art' and 'Life' in symmetric opposition (a motif that would reappear throughout Whiteley's oeuvre, and most famously, in his monumental eighteen-panel work, Alchemy 1972-73).

Underlying both his writing and art, the multifaceted relationship between 'art and life' is fundamental to the appreciation of all of Whiteley's achievements - as he variously mused, 'Art is the thrilling spark that beats death'7; 'Life is a blank canvas, art is filling it in'8; and perhaps most pertinently, 'Is art worth a life?' In this later dialogue with himself, Whiteley responds, 'Well, according to Vincent (van Gogh) masterpieces one looked at in Europe and America - what else is there? All other forms of life are boring. But,' he remonstrates, 'obviously masterpieces merely want every life to be worth an art. What increases is the feeling that art is not just aesthetic, or a philosophy of optics, or a patch of history, or a way of fleeing up out of the hideousness of experience, but a peculiar sort of spiritual affliction that causes the nervous system to be constantly singling out the process in nature that is atomic and beautiful.'9

Saturated in tones of the yellow - symbolising at once optimism and madness - which Whiteley had observed everywhere in New York 'in the taxis, in the mustard, in the Kodak boxes and Con Edison construction tents'10, the present portrait moreover references the artist's keen interest in dual states, and to a certain degree in his figurative work, schizophrenia. While it is unlikely that Whiteley himself ever suffered from such a condition in strict medical terms, it was a concept which certainly preoccupied him - particularly as he delved further into the writings of British psychiatrist R.D. Laing who created self-induced states of madness and schizophrenia in order to analyse these disturbing aspects of the human condition. More specifically, it has been suggested that the publication of The Divided Self in 1960 - in which Laing proposed that insecurity about self-existence elicited a defensive reaction in which the ego split into separate parts - may have prompted Whiteley to investigate his own splintered approach to art.11 Thus, his portraits of heroes such as Vincent may be construed not so much as optical studies but rather, explorations of the psyche, projections into alternative states - the creation of another self.

Ultimately however, perhaps the final word on the inspiration behind such poignant and compelling tributes to his spiritual and artistic mentor, should remain with Whiteley himself. As he reflected in the 'Introduction' to his exhibition dedicated to van Gogh, in which the present work featured prominently,

'...Vincent van Gogh is one of the few to be a painter's painter. He makes you want to have a go. With all the sadness in the self-portraits, although they are very simply done, the more you look at them the more extraordinary they really are. They convey the tragedy of life: to know that one will never know, from a darkness to a darkness, the infliction only given any meaning through dedication. This series of pictures, this exhibition, this little book is my effort to keep the flame alight.'12

1. Capon, E., Another Way of Looking at Vincent van Gogh 1888-1889 by Brett Whiteley, 1968-1983, Richard Griffin Press, Melbourne, 1983, n.p.
2. Whiteley cited ibid., n.p.
3. Whiteley cited ibid.
4. 'Electricity in Water', Time, 10 November 1967
5. Pearce, B. et. al., Brett Whiteley: Art and Life, Thames and Hudson in association with the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1995, p.29
6. Whiteley cited in McGrath, S., Brett Whiteley, Bay Books, Sydney, 1979, p.113
7. Whiteley cited ibid., p.214
8. Whiteley cited ibid., p.215
9. Whiteley cited ibid., pp. 132-133
10. Whiteley cited in 'Painting: Plaster Apocalypse', Time, 10 November 1967
11. Pearce, op.cit., p.31
12. Whiteley cited in Capon, op.cit., n.p.