Australian Screen

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Difficult Pleasure: A Portrait of Brett Whiteley (1989)

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clip Powerful gift education content clip 1

Original classification rating: M. This clip chosen to be PG

Clip description

Australian artist Brett Whiteley says that he was born with a 'powerful gift’. Whiteley points out that many 'gifted people shipwreck’. He talks of his addiction to drugs and says it is a way of testing his gift as a painter.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This clip shows Brett Whiteley’s artworks in his studio intercut with black-and-white photographs of him as a child. As the camera pans through the studio and over the works, Whiteley describes the challenges of being gifted and of overcoming his addictive tendencies. Finally, the camera reveals him in the studio, rising from a chair and drawing a single line, shown in close-up, on a large blank canvas attached to the wall.

Educational value points

  • In this clip film techniques are used to explore themes such as addiction and giftedness, with creative camerawork reflecting Whiteley’s quest to push the boundaries of his talent. The camera roams through the rooms, corridors and staircases of Whiteley’s studio, searching for and finding him. It then focuses tightly on Whiteley’s hand as he draws a long charcoal line. The camerawork creates a metaphor for the artist’s search for meaning and intensifies the expressive potential of the medium by combining images with Whiteley’s verbal reflections. The director provides still moments by interspersing the fluid visual tour of the studio with photographs of Whiteley as a child.
  • The clip provides an introduction to one of the best known Australian artists of the 20th century. Whiteley was born in Sydney in 1939 and during his career won many prizes and awards. He is represented in all of Australia’s major collections, and is recognised for his outstanding skill as a draftsman and the fluidity of his style. He was a key figure in the Avant-garde Movement in Australia, and in 1991 was awarded the Order of Australia. He died from a drug overdose in 1992.
  • The vast range of Whiteley’s work is shown, with the camera moving through his studio, revealing and lingering momentarily on paintings, drawings, sculptures and ceramics. The artworks are in colour, monotone and black-and-white, and subjects include human figures, nudes, landscapes, birds, eggs and tributes to other artists. Rembrandt’s face blurs into abstraction in one work.
  • Influences on Whiteley’s work are also revealed. The shapeliness and distortion of his nudes suggest Amedeo Modigliani, colours and shapes recall Henri Matisse, and the stretched or twisted nature of some of the subjects is similar to the work of Francis Bacon. The delicacy and lyricism of Chinese calligraphy are also evident. Whiteley flirted with abstraction, surrealism and eroticism, while being labelled a lyrical expressionist.
  • The clip offers insight into Whiteley’s struggle with illicit drugs. During the 1970s, he progressed from alcohol to harder drugs and became addicted to heroin. He battled this addiction until he died from an overdose at age 53. In the voice-over accompanying this clip Whiteley describes the affinity he feels with other artists who have similar addictive personalities. Some artists believe that they are at their most creative when under the influence of drugs or mental illness. Whiteley also suffered schizophrenia, which has been linked to illicit drug use.
  • Whiteley was born with a remarkable talent and the clip highlights the challenges he faced, with the voice-over revealing the artist as being driven and needing to rebel, test his gift and flirt with self-destruction. Gifted people often feel that their talent is a burden. They may struggle to find balance in their lives and to come to terms with being different from others. Support and education are now available to help gifted children develop coping skills.
  • Whiteley’s studio, home and practice were all contained in a building that formerly housed a T-shirt factory in Raper Street, Surry Hills, an inner-city suburb of Sydney. Whiteley bought it in 1985 and converted it into a studio and exhibition space. He lived in the factory from 1988 until his death in 1992. The camera’s tour of the studio gives an insight into the ways Whiteley worked, showing unfinished canvases and photographs and stimulus materials displayed on the doors and walls. The studio is now the site of the Brett Whiteley Museum, which is open to the general public, offering changing exhibitions of the artist’s works, as well as educational programs.
  • The clip presents the work of Australia director Don Featherstone, who is a respected documentary maker. His other work includes Babakiueria, The Beach, The One Percenters and a series on talented artists titled Creative Spirits.

This clip starts approximately 3 minutes into the documentary.

This clip shows Brett Whiteley’s artworks in his studio intercut with black-and-white photographs of him as a child. As the camera pans through the studio and over the works, Whiteley describes the challenges of being gifted and of overcoming his addictive tendencies. Finally, the camera reveals him in the studio, rising from a chair and drawing a single line, shown in close-up, on a large blank canvas attached to the wall.
Brett Whiteley I was born with a gift, a very powerful gift. And there’s a lot of gifted people. And I notice a lot of gifted people shipwreck. People who are gifted with great beauty don’t quite know how to dish and deal it. People who are gifted with money, you can see how easily they can run off the rails. People who are gifted with very high intelligence, and the number of them that wind up alcoholic and isolated.

In fact, the whole notion of having a gift – there is this requirement in it to test it, to ride close to the edge. It seems part and parcel of the very notion of a gift to – to – to rebel against it. And to see whether it is really real. Because it can be very easily dissipated or damaged. Or, ultimately, destroyed. And I’ve had an immense problem with it. Because I don’t really want to spend a lot of time discussing the notion of the disease of addiction, but all my heroes have been addicts and I am an addict, and for the rest of my life, I will struggle against the embracing of the mysterious self-destructive self-murder, the urge to deny, defy, wreck, ruin, challenge, one’s gift. Because it is, um, a very precious thing. It’s a kind of incredible permission.

And my biography is that I was born with this gift or this infliction, and I hope to get mature and protective and to tune it and to enlarge it and to share it. And that’s the only purpose of my existence.

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australianscreen is produced by the National Film and Sound Archive. By using the website you agree to comply with the terms and conditions described elsewhere on this site. The NFSA may amend the 'Conditions of Use’ from time to time without notice.

All materials on the site, including but not limited to text, video clips, audio clips, designs, logos, illustrations and still images, are protected by the Copyright Laws of Australia and international conventions.

When you access australianscreen you agree that:

  • You may retrieve materials for information only.
  • You may download materials for your personal use or for non-commercial educational purposes, but you must not publish them elsewhere or redistribute clips in any way.
  • You may embed the clip for non-commercial educational purposes including for use on a school intranet site or a school resource catalogue.
  • The National Film and Sound Archive’s permission must be sought to amend any information in the materials, unless otherwise stated in notices throughout the Site.

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ANY UNAUTHORISED USE OF MATERIAL ON THIS SITE MAY RESULT IN CIVIL AND CRIMINAL LIABILITY.

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