For most of us growing up in the 70s and 80s, Brett Whiteley was a household name. We knew he was a brilliant modern artist who’d put Australia on the map and that tragically, he’d died at an early age after getting involved with hard drugs.

But now in 2017, you only have to glance briefly at the history of Australian art and you’ll see, there’s never been anyone quite like Whiteley. It’s nearly 25 years since he died and he’s still one of the most important artists and cultural icons we’ve produced.

Whiteley painting a pot thrown by Derek Smith, 1978/9

A new documentary film called Whiteley  is screening in cinemas now, allowing us to find out more about this amazing man – including why he was inspired to be an artist at such a young age and what his life was really like.

Made by the Documentary Australia Foundation (DAF), it’s a visual journey into Whiteley’s tumultuous but productive life, told in his own voice from media coverage and written material.

Brett’s wife, Wendy Whiteley, says that it was important that the film used existing footage of Brett to make sure the story was told authentically.

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The documentary aims to remember Whiteley for his art, rather than his tumultuous life

“I met the director and we talked about it specifically being a documentary made with as much existing footage of Brett so he could be speaking himself, as much as possible,” she says. “We all worked together to make sure we were all on the same page”

Wendy adds that she went to an early screening of the film and for the first time she looked at it as if she was a member of the audience, instead of someone working on it.

“It was very emotional for me and I looked around and everyone seemed to be feeling it… It’s achieving something that’s positive for Brett’s work which is good,” she says.

With Brett being such a significant figure in Australia’s cultural history, it seems strange that this project has not come about earlier.

“I think that number one, it’s an expensive thing to do,” says Wendy. “A couple of companies have come to me about feature films and that’s still revolving around in the air – there’s talk about certain actors and actresses. But I don’t think it’s that easy to make a film about a visual artist. I don’t know that I’ve seen many that have really achieved what they set out to do.”

It took about three years to complete the film, although Wendy adds that she’s “not good at making judgements about time. Sometimes I think, my God, Brett’s been dead for over 25 years now and I go Jesus – where has that gone? And I’m 76 and I think – where’s that gone? I had no intention of being here at this age but I’m glad I am now.”

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Wendy understands the importance of found footage for an authentic approach

Wendy says she’d like people to remember Brett for his art work more than for his tumultuous life: “Of course, the story of our life is part of it obviously, because that was being lived at the time. And it had a tragic end and all that stuff. But who’d be interested if the art wasn’t there? It’d just be the story of another person dying of a drug overdose in a hotel room – that happens every day.”

“But all the negative stuff about the drugs and alcohol – nobody takes any notice of that except the people who were involved in it basically.

“So that’s not the point – the point is that this person had all of that, but why people are interested is because he painted those pictures and because he’s very articulate and from such an early age. The success ratio of Brett was extraordinary,” she adds.

The Brett Whiteley Scholarship, set up in 1999 by his mother Beryl carries on the legacy of his work, as does the Brett Whiteley Studio in Surry Hills. As Wendy says: “The legacy grows really – it doesn’t diminish. There’s always something going on there at the studio and people love that.”

Whiteley  is now screening in both general and art cinemas across Australia. Watch the trailer below.

Do you have a favourite Australian artist?

Image credit: Wendy Whiteley / Brett Whiteley Estate

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