Countless words have been expended over the years exploring the genius of Brett Whiteley. In the 1960s the artist, who would arguably go on to lead the avant-garde movement in Australia, mulled over the meaning of that word himself: genius. He asked the noted poet and art critic Robert Gray what he thought it meant in the context of a great painter.
Gray’s answer, recalled all these years later by the artist’s then-wife Wendy Whiteley, stayed with him. It was: “Genius is 98% lead and 2% mercury.”
It is a Dylan-esque response, seemingly more a deflecting quip than a serious answer to the question. But its cryptic nature resonated with the two-time Archibald prize winner, whose life is unpacked in a fast-paced and visually splashy new documentary, Whiteley, from the Australian film maker James Bogle.
“Brett really understood what Robert meant,” recalls Wendy. “He was really only together – completely together – when he was working, which was most of the time. Creating art, you spend a lot of time just schlepping. Thinking, ‘Jesus, how am I going to get out of this corner?’ You can turn the page if you’re writing, or if you’re painting you can put the canvas face to the wall and come back later with insight into what you can do. But a lot of it is just getting to that point as much as you can. 98% lead, 2% mercury.”
Bogle’s film arrives soon after last year’s estate-approved biography of Brett Whiteley, written by The Australian’s arts editor, Ashleigh Wilson. There’s also been a well-publicised and unpredictable art forgery case recently, resulting in the acquittal of two previously convicted Victorian men. That one is an aberration, but researchers poring over the details of Wendy and Brett’s life is not. Wendy is well accustomed to fielding all sorts of requests.
“Sometimes people ask me stupid things and they just get a very short sharp ‘no’. And sometimes when I should say no, I don’t,” she says. “But it’s never been that bad. In fact it’s been an extraordinary couple of years around the Whiteley thing. I felt a bit Whiteleyed-out at one stage, but I’ve gathered a bit more energy to do this.”
She says the agenda of storytellers such as Bogle and Wilson is always the same: “It’s always about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. That tired old story.” Therefore a condition of collaborating with Bogle was that the film would, as much as possible, explore Whiteley’s life using his own words.
“They researched like crazy and got together a lot of amazing footage from all over the place,” says Wendy. “It allowed Brett to speak for himself, which is why I think it works. For me personally it has a little too much of the actor with the wig, and the looping bits, though there is less of that now than there was originally. But the paintings look amazing and the film is actually carried by Brett.”
Like the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, certain chapters of Whiteley’s life prove irresistible to biographers. These include he and Wendy’s stay at the Chelsea Hotel in the 1960s: those hallowed, dope-scented, alcohol-stained hallways which were the stomping ground of giants such as Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen and Jimmy Hendrix. “It was an amazing building. But Chelsea is very different now, very gentrified, with thousands of galleries everywhere,” recalls Wendy. “Back then it was a pretty rough area. There was a real mixture of people coming and going and it got pretty seedy towards the end.”
The gentrification of world-famous places such as the Chelsea belongs to a wider conversation about the effect mass tourism has had on the art world. Wendy believes that while art fairs and blockbuster exhibitions have made some art much more accessible worldwide – certainly compared with what Australia was like in the 60s – mass tourism has come at a substantial cost.
“There was something about being able to do your spaghetti shopping in Florence, in Firenze, where we went first, and pop in and out of the Uffizi, to look at a few paintings and then go home with your bag of shopping,” she says. “Now it’s so expensive to get there, incredibly expensive to live there, and there’s a four and a half hour queue when you arrive.
“Then when you get inside there’s rows of people fifteen deep, with fucking iPhones taking photographs … That’s not looking at paintings. That’s putting a tick on some kind of a list that says ‘I’ve been to the Louvre’, or ‘I’ve been to the Uffizi’.”
Wendy is not concerned that a similar fate (more tourism, terrible congestion) will befall her beloved “secret garden”: an enchanting space next to her and Brett’s old harbour side home in Lavender Bay, Sydney. In the years following her ex-husband’s death she famously transformed it from an unused waste-strewn area to a lush plant-filled sanctuary. In fact, she fears the opposite: “I worry more about it not having any visitors, because people start taking it for granted.”