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Whiteley: In the Iconic Artist's Own Words (ATOM Study Guide)

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    WHITELEY is a visual journey into the private life and creative legacy of Australia’s most iconic artist, Brett Whiteley, told “in his own words” using personal letters, notebooks and photographs, interwoven with reconstructions, animations, archival interviews and rare footage. The documentary is directed by James Bogle and produced by Sue Clothier. 

    25 years after his untimely death, there has never been anyone like Brett Whiteley in the history of Australian art. A talented self-taught illustrator and painter, he was catapulted out of Sydney at 20 when he won a travelling art scholarship to Italy. So began a stellar career which saw him budding in Europe, flourishing in London, and almost disintegrating in New York.

    Returning to Australia in 1969, Whiteley helped to define the young nation’s unique creative voice, as it emerged from colonial conservatism and independently entered an ambitious, cosmopolitan era. Whiteley combined the influence of Lloyd Rees (his own Australian role model) with eclectic inspirations gathered overseas, forming an illuminating personal style that propelled him into the global limelight.

    Whiteley’s constant muse was his wife, Wendy. Both a catalyst for his creative passions and a witness to their incendiary consequences, she remains the sole custodian of his artistic legacy. When they met, she was an art student, almost 16, and 17-year-old Whiteley was instantly spellbound by her.

    Together, the wide-eyed teen sweethearts grew into international art rockstars, with Brett’s increasingly complex and contradictory persona swinging them between triumph and disaster. Wendy was the subject of some of his most famous and popular paintings, and was the mother of their only child, Arkie.

    Like so many brilliant artists, Whiteley’s ambitious ascent to dizzying heights would eventually meet with a tragic downfall. Having built a tower of artistic statements exploring monumental ideas like Love, Evil, War, Beauty and “Endlessnessism”, he irretrievably fell from it.

    Whiteley’s artworks were made across just 30 years, but their ongoing impact on Australia’s creative culture is extraordinary: he blazed a trail that still lights a path forward for a new generation of artists.

    Curriculum Guidelines:

    This feature length documentary is suitable for middle and senior secondary students in the following study areas: 

    • Studio Arts subjects including Art History, Drawing, Colour and Design. Examining the work of an artist whose style and subjects were very central to his life experiences and energetic personality. The film looks at Whiteley as a fine draughtsman, colourist and innovator in composition and scale. 
    • Australian Culture and Society – understanding how Whiteley’s life and work both challenged and was challenged by the times in which he lived and worked – from his birth in Sydney in 1939 to his premature death in 1992.  What was life in Australia like for a young artist in 1960s and 70s Australia and how did Whiteley create a strikingly Australian perspective in his work? How did his work transcend the nationalism so often reflected in the work of other Australian artists?
    • English – Investigating how the style of a biography can sympathetically reflect the essence of an individual and his times.
    • Media and Film Studies – Exploring how this film is constructed to mirror the energy, vigour and contradictions that characterised Whiteley’s work and life.  As producer Sue Clothier says – Brett was a larger than life character and taking a traditional biopic documentary approach didn’t feel right. 

    The pace, style and music used in the film make it very accessible and entertaining. It literally races along through Whiteley’s life and work, providing a vividly compelling and intimate portrait in words and images of this important artist’s life and work. 

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