10 May – 29 July 2012
Patrick White won the Nobel prize for ‘introducing a new continent to literature’. Coinciding with the one hundredth anniversary of White’s birth, the National Portrait Gallery will display eleven works centring on Brett Whiteley’s scintillating Patrick White at Centennial Park 1979–1980. The wild young artist painted White while the author was working on his autobiography, Flaws in the Glass; the two portraits, painted and written, developed together. The finished painting is one of Australia’s great portraits, but White felt betrayed by elements of the work. Drawn from the collections of the New South Wales State Parliament and the Brett Whiteley Studio, Art Gallery of New South Wales, this focus display brings to life the incendiary association between two of Australia’s blazing cultural stars.
Patrick White at Centennial Park, 1979-1980
by Brett Whiteley (1939-1992)
oil, collage on canvas on board
177.0 x 207.5 cm
New South Wales State Parliament
‘Am I a destroyer? This face in the glass which has spent a lifetime searching for what it believes, but can never prove to be, the truth. A face consumed by wondering whether truth can be the worst destroyer of all.’ i
Patrick White, the only person to have won the Nobel prize for describing Australians, was born in London to Australian parents in 1912. His father, Dick, was a White of the fabled property Belltrees, near Scone, NSW. The family never fully severed its connections to the land, although when White was a baby Dick and his wife Ruth settled in Sydney, moving, in due course, to a mansion called Lulworth in Roslyn Gardens, Elizabeth Bay. Paddy spent his primary years boarding in Moss Vale and then, at his mother’s insistence, endured four hateful years as a ‘colonial’ at an English school. There, a housemaster so tall that he smashed the lightbulbs as he caned the boys was determined to stamp out White’s passion for Ibsen, Chekhov and Strindberg, thinking it pointed to a ‘morbid kink’. At seventeen White came home to work for two years as a jackeroo, first on the Monaro, then near Walgett, south-west of Moree. He returned to England to read literature at King’s College, Cambridge, and after graduation remained in London until the outbreak of war, by which time his first novels had been published. For much of his life he was psychologically divided between England, Europe and Australia. As he put it, this country ‘is in my blood – my fate – which is why I have to put up with the hateful place... A Londoner is what I think I am at heart but my blood is Australian and that’s what gets me going.’ii
During the war, while serving as an intelligence officer in the Middle East and Egypt, White met Manoly Lascaris, a ‘small Greek of immense moral strength’ who was to remain his partner for life. They came to Australia in 1948, and bought six acres near Castle Hill on the outskirts of Sydney. At Dogwoods, as they called it, they worked very hard to establish a garden, grow fruit, vegetables and olives, make their own milk and cheese, and breed goats and schnauzers. White’s asthma was very severe, bringing him close to death more than once, and there were many times when he thought he had lost the capacity to write altogether. However, in about 1951 he began, painfully, on The Tree of Man, which appeared in 1955; at Dogwoods, too, he wrote the ripe and difficult novels Voss (1957) and Riders in the Chariot (1961). All of them were published and critically acclaimed in England and the US and soon translated into several languages.
Voss won the first Miles Franklin Literary Award, given for a work of ‘the highest literary merit which must present Australian life in any of its phases.’ Chafing, like many Australian writers, under pressure to write another Great Novel reflecting the country’s new maturity, White wrote to friends in 1958 ‘How sick I am of the bloody word AUSTRALIA. What a pity I am part of it; if I were not, I would get out tomorrow. As it is, they will have me with them till my bitter end, and there are about six more of my un-Australian novels to fling in their faces.’iii
In 1964, White and Lascaris bought a house in the then-unfashionable Sydney suburb of Centennial Park. Having arrived in the city with only the manuscript of his seventh novel, The Solid Mandala (1966), over the ensuing years in Martin Road White continued to ‘people the Australian emptiness in the only way I am able’ bringing forth novels including The Vivisector (1970), The Eye of the Storm (1973) and The Twyborn Affair (1979). Late in life he was to say that in Centennial Park’s idyllic landscape, surrounded by a metropolis, he had had the best of both worlds.
When White won the Nobel prize, for ‘introducing a new continent to literature’, it wasn’t really a surprise; it rarely is, for any recipient. First advanced as a Nobel contender in 1969, he found it galling to await the announcement in each subsequent year. The Swedish critic and translator Ingmar Björkstén had fallen for Voss and The Tree of Man on a visit to Australia in 1962. He met White at Dogwoods and returned to Sweden to promote his writing, convinced that he was Nobel material. It wasn’t Björkstén, however, but controversial Swedish Academy member Artur Lundkvist who secured the prize for White. At his instigation, the Academy considered White for the first time. Samuel Beckett won. His chances bolstered by a new Swedish translation of The Tree of Man, White was considered again in 1970. Alexander Solzhenitsin won. In 1971 it was Pablo Neruda. In 1972, hard on a new translation of The Vivisector, the majority of the Academy was behind White, yet Heinrich Böll won - especially galling for White, as Böll had once produced a clunking German translation of The Tree of Man. In 1973, it was a choice between White and Saul Bellow; the judges decided the prize should go to Australia, rather than the USA. It became Bellow’s turn to sit it out, for another three years.
In 1972-1973, on the north of Sydney harbour at Waverton, Brett Whiteley was working on the vast painting that dominates the contemporary Australian collection in the Art Gallery of New South Wales: the eighteen-panel Alchemy. Twenty-seven years White’s junior, a native of Longueville on Sydney’s Lower North Shore, Whiteley had been awarded the Italian Government Travelling Art Scholarship for 1960. In London he stirred up the art dealers; when the Tate bought one of his paintings in 1961, he became the youngest artist represented in its collection. That year, he won the international prize at the second Paris Biennale for Young Artists; the following, he married his beautiful muse, Wendy Julius, whom he had loved since she was fifteen. Through the 1960s he lived and exhibited in France, London, Tangier and New York (at the Chelsea Hotel). At the end of 1969, after a drug charge in Suva, he returned to live on Sydney harbour at Lavender Bay. He began the 1970s with gentle pictures of birds, moving on to massive portraits of the poets Verlaine and Rimbaud before taking eleven months to paint Alchemy.
The Whiteleys’ return to Sydney at the end of 1969 happened to coincide with the beginning of Patrick White’s career as a public radical. In December that year, he signed a Petition of Defiance of the National Service Act, risking imprisonment. It was during the Whitlam era that he ‘became political’, ‘first from exhilaration, then through a sense of outrage.’ Being a Nobel laureate, and Australian of the Year for 1974, brought him increased public exposure, and through the 1970s and 1980s he increasingly felt the need to ‘expiate his personal shame for much of what happens in Australia today’. His private notion of the artist as teller of truth found public expression at all sorts of protest gatherings, where he used terms such as ‘kidults’ and ‘mate-land’ to convey his grief for the country’s lost opportunities and impending dangers. ‘When accepted or shrugged off,’ he railed, ‘the lies and chicanery, the moral crimes committed by important members of society are passed on like contagious diseases through every level of the community.’ Assuring his listeners that ‘small scale passive resistance can work wonders, as some of you have found out in your private lives’, he spoke at rallies to protest Australian subservience to Britain, the USA and Japan; threats to turn Centennial Park into an Olympic Games venue and cover the Rocks and Woolloomooloo with skyscrapers; the monorail; the development of Australia’s nuclear facilities; the Bicentennial celebrations. ‘I still have this photograph of a fat old codger in beret and tweed suit surrounded by youthful supporters, advancing down George Street towards the Town Hall under one of our banners’, he wrote with pride and embarrassment at the end of the 1970s.
The months after he won the Nobel prize, in which sales of his novels spiked all over the world, was the only period in his life in which White earned a substantial income from writing. He didn’t travel to Stockholm to accept the honour, asking the painter Sidney Nolan to go in his stead; he didn’t write a Nobel lecture. Nor did he keep any of his prize money, using it to set up a fund for older, unrecognised Australian writers. This magnanimous act was not his first. White is famous for breached relationships, notably that with Nolan. However, over the course of his life, he was a generous benefactor to various charities and causes, as well as friends. Although he had purchased the Martin Road property comfortably with part of his inheritance, he and Lascaris lived frugally. In this way, they were able to travel - often to the Greek islands - and to build up a very substantial collection of art including paintings by Sidney Nolan, Ian Fairweather, Roy de Maistre, David Aspden, Micky Allan, Chris O’Doherty, Stanislaus Rapotec and Ken Whisson.
Like many another Australian artist returning from success in London, Brett Whiteley was fashionable; he and Wendy were also the most glamorous couple the country had (or, indeed, has) known for years. White resisted him for some time, dismissing him as an imitator of Francis Bacon, to whom White had been introduced by Roy de Maistre in London, and of whom Whiteley had made several portraits. Yet not even White could hold out against the beauty of Whiteley’s big shows at the Bonython Gallery in Paddington in the early 1970s. Over time, as Whiteley turned to series of paintings of waves, interiors, the harbour, and coastal landscapes, White bought major works including one of Whiteley’s massive, spare harbour views, Big orange (sunset) 1974; and The green mountain (Fiji) 1969, a lush landscape incorporating bird, nest, eggs and a collaged note. In 1978, Whiteley became the first artist to win the Archibald Prize for portraiture, the Wynne Prize for landscape and the Sulman Prize for genre painting all in the same miraculous year. By the end of 1979, Peter Timms was raving in the Shepparton News that ‘Whiteley is a turbulent, creative talent of titanic stature.’iv
These were Brett Whiteley’s various ideas for his immediate future at the start of April 1979: the first, to introduce into his body only vegetables, fruit, distilled water and maybe a bit of milk; the second, to travel like a Gypsy, beginning in China; and the third, to remain as he was, and paint four portraits over the coming two years: of Albert Einstein, Howard Hughes, Patrick White and Sir Kenneth Clark. (Some years earlier, Whiteley had offended half of England by observing that John Christie, the perpetrator of ghastly murders and necrophile acts at 10 Rillington Place and the subject of a hideously evocative series of paintings by the artist, bore an uncanny resemblance to Clark, the country’s august authority on art.) As he outlined his plans, he gave his interviewer a list of his favourite things:
Bird: Japanese white ibis
Food: near-raw steak and milk
Drink: crushed chilled apricot
Sound: Bob Dylan singing ‘I Want You’ at the Sydney Sports Ground in April 1978
Painter: Turner (at sea)
Dog: those without collarsv
The artist and the writer had known each other for some years before the portrait was initiated, and saw each other socially. According to David Marr, Whiteley told White that ‘the acid people’ identified with his vision and that Van Morrison had cited him as an influence. In 1972 the artist urged White and Lascaris to try mescalin, but they feared looking ridiculous at their age. White told a friend that Whiteley made them touch his hair, ‘which is a mop of tight little corkscrew curls which look silky, but feel as though they have been rubbed with resin’; to Manoly it felt like touching a strange animal.vi On the night of the dismissal of Gough Whitlam, 11 November 1975, Brett and Wendy Whiteley were at dinner at Martin Road with the poet David Campbell and his wife. They all listened incredulously to the wireless while they ate their charred meal. ‘Brett Whiteley passed out on a divan in the middle of the room, which we keep for that purpose, but which nobody had made use of till then’, White recalled.
Whiteley painted White while the author was working on his autobiography, Flaws in the Glass, in which he wrestled publicly with what to say about himself and how to say it; ‘double values abound amongst those I used to respect; and as for myself, I have never disguised a belief that, as an artist, my face is many-faceted, my body protean, according to time, climate, and the demands of fiction’, he wrote. It is a critical commonplace that each of White’s novels refracts his own experience and personality; he remarks that there is ‘plenty’ of the Princesse de Lascabanes in him, and can recognise himself in the vulgar egotist Sir Basil; the painter Hurtle Duffield in The Vivisector he identifies as ‘a composite of several I have known, welded together by the one I have in me but never became’. He wrote that as far as he could see, ‘the little that is subtle in the Australian character comes from the masculine principle in its women, the feminine in its men.’ Flaws in the Glass came hard on the heels of The Twyborn Affair, with a protagonist who switches, a third of the way through the book, from Eudoxia Vatatzes, mistress of an old Greek aristocrat, to the decorated serviceman and jackeroo Eddie Twyborn. He was to experiment further with ‘notions’ of his own identity in Memoirs of Many in One (1986), a novel in which the elderly female protagonist - a kind of exuberantly cross-dressed White - delights in baiting her conservative old friend, the character Patrick White.
The studies Whiteley made as he worked his way toward the final portrait imply an exciting, dynamic and companionable association between the men; they stand as tangible proof that they walked in the park, and discussed fundamental questions. However, brilliant as they are, the works in this exhibition present White only as irascible, suspicious and supercilious. None of them shows his humour, and none has a feminine cast: there is no attempt to evoke the Jungian anima that informs so much of the author’s work. White claimed that ‘the puritan in me has always wrestled with the sensualist’ but only the Flaws in the Glass portrait, made after Patrick White at Centennial Park, shows a man of base appetites, with electric eyes and markedly fleshier lips than White’s own.
The preparatory portraits are fascinating not, then, because they show various sides of White, but because they reflect various aspects of Whiteley’s style and practice. The three portrait heads, for example, are not unlike drawings he made in the London Zoo in the 1960s (to say that the drawing of the author looks rather like the Drawing of an ape of 1965 is to insult neither White nor Whiteley – after all, Sartre recalled, in La Nausée, his aunt’s telling him that anyone who looks in a mirror for long enough will see a monkey.) The head in blue ink, though unfortunately, for posterity, on lined paper, calls to mind the white ceramic vessels and platters decorated with intense blue nudes, magnolias and stylised foliage that Whiteley made around 1979-1980. Another work made after the big portrait, Patrick White as a headland (inscribed ‘after a discussion about reincarnation’), is characteristic of Whiteley’s swooping, fisheye-perspective landscapes.vii The exclamation mark in From walks in Centennial Park with Patrick White appears in Alchemy. The detailed, highly finished observational drawing of White looking rather paranoid is unusual in Whiteley’s body of work. It is free of his seemingly-inescapable sinuosity of line; somehow, the sketch skipped the dominant aesthetic gene that reasserts itself in the boneless arms and dangling legs of the author in the finished work.
Whiteley explained what he was trying to do:
Patrick was an exercise. Could I incorporate a portrait with Australia and his world? Could I make a vision of the feeling of his literature plus how he lived, and the complexity of him as a person, his humour, his bitchiness, his pronouncements? I think he’s really a king of a person, the only one in Australia that really is a judge in many things. I’m not a reader and I’ve only read two of his things, but they’ve had such an enormous effect on me that I’ve felt intimidated by the mind that could weave such a thing. The Solid Mandala is the one I cherish. He would only give up more to the picture as he believed I could make a vision of it. I wanted from him love, hate; I wanted from him the literature that he effected and how it influenced him; things that he loved so enormously; the best of his work, his dogs, his private life. And he is an enormously private person. The closer I could paint it the more he gave. I worked on the head for two months and was enormously dissatisfied. Then I went away for a week with a piece of paper exactly the same size as his head, and just concentrated on a vision of his head, and clinched an image that was an anchor ... I’d got it to look like what I saw. I cut it out and put it on the picture and then everything in it became subordinate to that vision. It took about 1 ½ months of structure, a week of precision and then it took a day of – I don’t know the word for that.viii
In working up the head of his portrait subject, Whiteley also referred to photographs taken by William Yang at the artist’s instigation. One of them, a defining image of the author late in life, was amongst the first acquisitions of the National Portrait Gallery of Australia in 1998.
In contrast to his earlier, fragmented and stylised portraits of Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Van Gogh, Whiteley’s portrait of White shows the writer with his head attached to his body, sitting in a fairly ordinary position in his study, in the centuries-old tradition of portrayals of the guildsman at his work bench, the explorer with his maps or the zoologist with his specimens. These sorts of portraits, and those inscribed with mottoes, tags, names and ideograms, have been described as ‘augmented’ portraits, because they offer not just a likeness but deliberate clues as to character or biography.ix They appear to present documentary evidence of the sitter’s environment. So, we assume, for example, that White sat on a Thonet-style bentwood rocker, put out seed for birds and set the sprinkler on his grass. Yet portraits of this kind are not always faithful to facts, and this one certainly isn’t. Here, the ‘books’ the spines of which are labelled Stendhal, Mozart, Chekhov, Goya, The Solid Mandala and so on look more like lever-arch files, on which White has carefully and rather poignantly written labels in differently-coloured textas. Lascaris, a dignified man, looks like a saucy comedian in his photograph. The significance of the cone shell is unclear (is it significant?). The panes of glass behind White are far too large for a domestic space. The gate appears to be a mere step up from the footpath, whereas the block at 20 Martin Road was steeply elevated from the street. The greatest affront to fact is that the view gives east, across the road to Centennial Park; yet the Opera House and Circular Quay (situated to the north, beyond the CBD) are visible in the top left corner. The glimpse of the Opera House is perhaps Whiteley’s effort to ‘incorporate [sic] a portrait with Australia and his world’. White himself described Sydney as ‘my native city’ and ‘what I have in my blood’ (as well as describing Joern Utzon, whom he met on the Royal yacht Britannia in 1963, as ‘handsome as they come’). Yet a case could be made for the portrait’s referring strongly to the painter himself; a similar stylised Opera House appears in his own Self portrait in the Studio of 1976, and the magnolia – its leaves in exactly the same arrangement - is the eponymous star of a still life he painted in 1977-1978.
The portrait and the preparatory works haven’t been shown together since they were exhibited at the David Reids’ Gallery in Paddington from April 26 to May 17 1980. (A point of interest for grammar pedants: the Gallery was an exhibition space available for hire from David Reid and his father, also named David Reid; hence the plural possessive apostrophe.) The show comprised a series of larger-than-life-size oil, steel and gold leaf Crucifixions, depicting Whiteley’s friend Joel Elenberg, who was soon to die of cancer; lyrical landscapes from the region around Oberon, New South Wales; a portrait of Elenberg; and the portrait of Patrick White with many studies for the work.
The portrait of White was spotted at the Reids’ Gallery by Andrew Andersons, Principal Architect of the extended and refurbished New South Wales Parliament House from 1972 onward. For some time, the Parliament had enjoyed the privilege of borrowing art works from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, but a few years into the redevelopment, the NSW Parliament Art Committee, which included the Acting Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Gil Docking, recommended that a collection should be built for the Parliament that was ‘representative of the best contemporary art in Australia with an emphasis given to works by artists resident in New South Wales’. With an eye to ‘substantial’ works, mainly paintings, the idea was to hang the principal collection in what were deemed to be the more important areas of the building.x The selection of works was left largely to Andersons and Docking, although they well knew that there was some resistance amongst the members to contemporary artworks,xi and acquisitions had ultimately to be ratified by a committee. Andersons was living in Paddington, and had heard about the Whiteley show in advance, but although he got there early, he found that all of the big landscapes had sold; there was nothing left but the crucifixions and the portraits. Andersons knew that White would appeal, as a public figure, to the likes of Neville Wran and Jack Ferguson; besides, he sensed that Whiteley’s work transcended objections to ‘the new’. Accordingly, despite Docking’s misgivings about the conservation challenges inherent in its glued-on elements, the portrait of White was purchased, with one of the drawings, from Whiteley’s dealer Robin Gibson.
Andrew Andersons had met White and Lascaris once or twice when they lived at Castle Hill, at parties at the nearby home of the artists Margo and Gerald Lewers. White, however, was unaware of their acquaintance when he rang and requested a meeting with Andersons with a view to learning where his portrait was to be hung and who would see it. They met at the Reids’ gallery in front of the work, and Andersons explained that it was destined for a position of eminence at the entrance to the suite of the Premier. White was eager to impress on Andersons that he didn’t know the list of his loves and hates was going to be incorporated into the portrait; Andersons reassured him that the Premier couldn’t be happier about the purchase and that the portrait wouldn’t be hung where it would be exposed to public scrutiny. When Barrie Unsworth became Premier in July 1986, he asked for the portrait to be removed from its position;xii but when Nick Greiner became Premier in March 1988, he is said to have had it reinstated.
The relationship between White and Whiteley survived the portrait project; Patrick White bought Whiteley’s Stones staring at the ground (anywhere) shortly after Patrick White at Centennial Park was completed. Yet it’s easy to imagine the author’s embarrassment when the Sydney intelligentsia was alerted to the portrait’s list of his loves and hates in the Sydney Morning Herald’s front-page ‘Column 8’ at the end of April 1980. He admitted that he expected more than most people were capable of giving; ‘where I have gone wrong in life is in believing that total sincerity is compatible with human intercourse’, he wrote.xiii Yet he became disenchanted with Whiteley, as he had with so many others lacking ‘pureness of heart’. In time, White focused his increasing general disappointment with the younger man on his incorporation into the portrait of elements he had furnished at Whiteley’s request as inspirational, preparatory material - to wit, that list. He wrote to him in October 1981, repudiating
that vein of dishonesty from which so many of your acts and attitudes stem. When you asked me to write down my likes and dislikes for you alone before you painted the portrait, and then I found them pasted on the thing itself, that really rocked me, but I swallowed my feelings at the time. However, one sees that this kind of dishonesty is behind everything you do ... I find this very distressing in one I wanted to accept as a friend.’
Whiteley wrote back to him four days later,
You make me feel wicked as though I’ve ripped you off ... your fidelity of accuracy is so deeply moving why would you deny another man’s attempt to show some truth ... so you think I’m dishonest I’ll just have to reset the computer and press forget.
Despite having told a friend that ‘As for novels I don’t think Australians will be reading them by the end of the century, so I have wasted my life and would have done better learning to cook properly in the beginning,’xiv White kept writing creatively pretty much to the end. He died in 1990, shortly before the publication of David Marr’s superb biography with Patrick White at Centennial Park on its dustjacket. There was no funeral; White’s ashes were scattered by Lascaris in Centennial Park. In what served, for his friends, as a memorial service, the biography was launched at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, beneath the Whiteley portrait. Alone, Whiteley died of an overdose in a motel in Thirroul, New South Wales in the winter of 1992. Lascaris, publicly acknowledged by White as the mainstay of his life and work, died in November 2003 at the nursing home established in Lulworth, the grand house White had lived in as a child. Wendy Whiteley lives alone in the home she made with Brett Whiteley in Lavender Bay; the big Crucifixions, unsold, hang there.
Curator, White Whiteley
i Patrick White, Flaws in the Glass: A self-portrait, London: Jonathan Cape, 1981, 70. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes from White in this article are from this autobiography.
ii David Marr, Patrick White: A life, Milsons Point, NSW: Random House, 1991, 12 and elsewhere. Since the publication of this biography no one can writeabout White without either quoting Marr’s book, or going to considerable pains to find any fragment of information that Marr found insufficiently interestingor significant to include.
iii Marr, 328.
iv 9 November 1979, Whiteley clippings file, Research Library, National Gallery of Australia.
v Interview with Sandra McGrath, April 7-8 1979, NGA Whiteley clippings file.
vi Marr, 519.
vii Not in this exhibition; on display in The Life of Patrick Whiteat the National Library of Australia, Canberra, until 8 July 2012.
viii National Times May 25 to 31, 1980, NGA clippings file.
ix John Pope-Hennessy, The Portrait in the Renaissance, London: 1966, 208.
x Phil Goldsmith, Department of Parliamentary Services, Parliament of New South Wales, pers comm., April 2012.
xi Information on Andersons’s involvement in the purchase of the portrait is from Andrew Andersons AO, pers comm., April 2012.
xii Phil Goldsmith, pers comm., April 2012.
xiii Flaws 155.
xiv David Marr, Ed., Patrick White:Letters, Milsons Point, New South Wales: Random House, 1994, 548-9.