Vincent 1968 signed and dated 'Brett 68' lower right; inscribed 'The departure of Gauguin from Arles, December 1888.....' upper left oil, ink, mirror and razor on board 221.5 x 167.5cm (87 3/16 x 65 15/16in).
PROVENANCE: Marlborough - Gerson Gallery, New York (labeled atttached verso) Michael D. Abrams Esq. Collection, New York Australian and European Paintings, Prints and Photographs, Christie's, Sydney, 6 December 1994, lot 128 Marlborough Fine Art, London Fine Australian Paintings, Sotheby's, Melbourne, 28 April 1997, lot 163 Private Collection, Melbourne Australian & International Fine Art, Deutscher and Hackett, Melbourne, 29 August 2007, lot 10 Private Collection, Sydney
EXHIBITED: Brett Whiteley - Recent Work, Marlborough - Gerson Gallery, New York, May - June 1968, cat.3 (cover illustration) Another Way of Looking at Vincent van Gogh 1888 - 1889. by Brett Whiteley 1968 - 1983, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 4 July - 21 August 1983, cat.5 Brett Whiteley: Art and Life, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 16 September - 19 November 1995; Museum and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory, Darwin, 13 December 1995 - 28 January 1996; Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, 22 February - 8 April 1996; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 9 May - 16 June 1996; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2 July - 26 August 1996; Tasmanian Museum and Gallery, Hobart, 18 September - 17 November 1996, cat.116
LITERATURE: Edmund Capon, Another Way of Looking at Vincent van Gogh 1888 - 1889 by Brett Whiteley, 1968 - 1983 Richard Griffin Press, Melbourne, 1983, p. 8 (illus). Sandra McGrath, Brett Whiteley, Bay Books, Sydney, 1979, p. 19 Pearce, B. et. al. Brett Whiteley: Art and Life, Thames and Hudson in association with the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1995, pp. 164,175 & pl.116 (illus).
Brett Whiteley shares with Vincent van Gogh the romantic notion of the 'artist as hero', Whiteley himself often being referred as a 'wunderkind', akin to a twentieth century pop star. His admiration for van Gogh led to him visiting Arles and devoting many years to paintings, sculptures and drawings in his honour. They reached their peak early, in Vincent 1968. This journey of admiration and fascination began in his youth, leading him to embrace art as his life. Years later it was extended through friendship with the British artist Francis Bacon and his painted tributes to van Gogh, as well as experience of the van Gogh 'mania', which gripped New York in 1967. The Metropolitan Museum had just added a van Gogh self-portrait, and a large exhibition of his watercolours and drawings drew records crowds to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. An immediate outcome was the painting Vincent 1968, featured in Whiteley's first New York exhibition at the Marlborough - Gerson Gallery in the spring of the same year. Portraits of other heroes included Paul Gauguin and Bob Dylan. Arguably the finest of his tributes to van Gogh, its use of a diversity of images and objects being characteristic and highly evocative. There are the paintbrushes of his trade, pipe and wine glass, and the actual mirror in which the artist can see himself and use for the painting of the self-portraits. The prominently placed 'cut-throat' razor, linked to the artist's ear by a blood red sweep of paint, is a tragic symbol of the break between van Gogh and Gauguin, and van Gogh's violent reaction. The link becomes a question mark in reverse, leading to the ear which van Gogh cut off. Whiteley's portrait head of van Gogh is very close to van Gogh's 1889 self-portrait in the New York private collection of Mr and Mrs John Hay Whitney. It is a brilliant essay on the man as artist through the introduction of the held palette and brushes in the lefthand corner of the picture.
The affinity between artist Whiteley and subject van Gogh, together with his respect for the great Dutch modern master, is expressed in both imagery and expressive technique. The introduced pen and ink landscape, for example, with its tortuous skies and flaming cypress tree is based on van Gogh's oil, Starry Night 1889. Whiteley would have seen this in New York's Museum of Modern Art. (While closer to the drawing of the same subject, this was formerly in the Kunsthalle, Bremen before its unfortunate destruction.) Whiteley extended the foreground and introduced the walking figure, accented by the lines leading from the head of van Gogh to the head of the figure, no doubt Whiteley himself walking into the picture in a pilgrimage of homage. In paying this special homage to his favoured artist, Whiteley explores the relationship between life and art. Introduced by the white, double-pointed arrow, the left is lettered 'LIFE', and the right 'ART', linked but pointing in opposite directions. The select biographical detritus of van Gogh's life in Vincent refers to the emotional turmoil and the tumultuous journey of the artist, of the link between mental instability and creativity, of the lows and thrilling highs. Some years later Whiteley questioned, 'Is art worth a life?', replying, 'Well, according to Vincent masterpieces one looked at in Europe and America what else is there?'1 The sacrifice for creative achievement is enormous, as seen in van Gogh. In 1983 the Art Gallery of New South Wales presented the exhibition, Another Way of Looking at Vincent van Gogh 1888 - 1889 by Brett Whiteley, 1968 - 1983. Vincent was one of the major works on show. Quoted in the introduction to the exhibition, Whiteley acknowledged van Gogh as a 'painter's painter'. He reflected, 'With all the sadness in the self-portraits, although they are simply done, the more you look at them the more extraordinary they really are. They convey the tragedy of life: to know that one will never know, from a darkness to a darkness, the infliction only given any meaning through dedication. This series of pictures, this exhibition, this little book is my effort to keep the flame alight.'2
David Thomas 1 The artist quoted in Sandra McGrath, Brett Whiteley, Bay Books, Sydney, 1979, pp. 132 - 133 2 The artist quoted in Edmund Capon, Another Way of Looking at Vincent van Gogh 1888 - 1889 by Brett Whiteley, 1968 - 1983, Richard Griffin Press, Melbourne, 1983, no pagination