The Fish River, 1979 - Brett Whiteley

July 16, 2020

Brett Whiteley

The Fish River, 1979

23.5 x 13.5 cmSynthetic polymer paint, gouache and ink on paper on paperInscribed with title and dated lower right the fish river/ July 19/79, stamped lower right with artist's monogram, bears inscription verso: Abell / Steinhoff Nov 80. Provenance: Private collection, United States of America, acquired directly from the artist. Private collection, United States of America. Menzies, Melbourne, 21 September 2016, lot 13. Private collection, Sydney. Literature: Sutherland, K., Brett Whiteley: Catalogue Raisonné, Schwartz Publishing, Melbourne, 2020, cat.129.79, vol. 3, p. 608 (illus.). Other Notes: This luminous and intimate winter landscape quickly recorded in ink and gouache neatly expresses the lyrical spirituality with which Brett Whiteley appreciated the rural environs in which he sought refuge. The late 1970s were decidedly tumultuous years in the lives of Brett and Wendy Whiteley, peppered with astounding highs such as the artist's winning of both the Wynne and Sulman prizes in 1977, and then of all three, the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman, in 1979, counterbalanced by periods of extreme dependence on narcotics and restorative sojourns in the countryside. During these trips to the countryside, Whiteley created many artworks following contours of the plains, hills and valleys west of the Great Dividing Range, in particular the lands around the towns of Oberon and Carcoar in New South Wales' central tablelands. The mesmerising forms of a sinuous riverbed fed into many of these masterful pastoral paintings of the late 1970s, including Summer at Carcoar, 1977 in the collection of the Newcastle Art Gallery, as well as in Paddock - Early Morning, Paddock- Late Afternoon and Blue Green Paddock, all painted in the winter of 1979 in Oberon, New South Wales. The Whiteleys had some influential friends in Sydney who owned holiday homes in this area, notably the radio host, John Laws, on whose property ran a perennial stream prized for rainbow trout, prosaically called Fish River. It was here, in the winter of 1979, where Brett and Wendy stayed for two months, along with the actor Jennifer Claire and her boyfriend.1. Returning to this region familiar from his childhood stirred feelings of tenderness in the artist, which in turn imbued certain pastoral compositions with a hint of magical realism and whimsical naiveté, aesthetically removed from his brash meditations on city living and addiction. Ashleigh Wilson explains the artist's regular visits in his 2016 biography: 'Trips out of Sydney were treasured escapes with Wendy, or alone, Brett liked to spend several days in the quiet, sketching, painting and drinking. Sometimes the trips were for him to get clean, he called them 'geographicals', intense days of detoxification - but often they served as a relief from Sydney'.2. Whiteley was transfixed by the countryside around Fish River, in particular the granite boulders and willows which lined the riverbanks. He wrote of these all-consuming feelings in a letter to his mother, who was living in the UK: 'The landscape really is the most beautiful I've seen in Australia … Fish River winds its way through the middle, but the most dramatic features are the intermittent strewn granite boulders … that give the dramatic feeling of a Zen garden'.3 He goes on to explain that the rapid changing of the light, in these shortest days of the year, forced him to make quick sketches on paper. 'The poetry in a painting has really got more to do with invention and how much you remember from going for a walk than it does from setting the canvas up in the paddock', he wrote. This little gouache is one such visual poem, an intimate and sweet capturing of pale winter light upon the vividly coloured pastures and flora, loose and keenly felt. Acquired directly from the artist, this work on paper is closely related to dozens of gouaches, drawings and oil sketches of this same paddock in Oberon, exhibited to high acclaim at Robin Gibson gallery in 1980, all fluid depictions of the three sentinel hills, winding river, burgeoning springtime weeping willows and playful native wildlife. 1. Wilson, A., Brett Whiteley: Art, Life and the Other Thing, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2016, p. 282. 2. Wilson, A., op. cit., p. 258. 3. Unposted letter to the artist's mother, 5 February 1980, held in the Brett Whiteley Studio, Sydney. LUCIE REEVES-SMITH