Baudelaire's Bird 1973 signed 'brett whiteley / Aug 1973' on verso oil and feathers on canvas on board 56.0 x 52.0cm (22 1/16 x 20 1/2in).
PROVENANCE Fischer Fine Art, London (label attached verso) Bonython gallery (label attached verso) Private collection, Sydney
Birds and heroes people Brett Whiteley's art. There are portraits of Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Charles Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Francis Bacon and others, 'who had, as he perceived in himself, addictive personalities.' 1 There is also the idea of the artist as hero as presented in Whiteley's Vincent 1968 and its autobiographical pilgrimage to Arles. Both Van Gogh and Whiteley shared an obsessive commitment to art. By contrast, birds, creatures of great exotic beauty, were, for Whiteley, metaphors of freedom, characterized by their ability to fly and soar above. While landscape painting gave Whiteley a vehicle for escape, he populated his landscapes with these beautiful creatures, including taxidermied birds, eggs and nests, as in The Day Asia got Born 1970 (private collection, Sydney). In others, such as The Olgas... Soon 1970 (Art Gallery of South Australia), collaged birds were joined by a possum tail, jawbone, and a wooden boomerang for diversity and increased reality. His fascination with birds was such that he also made them as sculptures, usually in bronze and plaster, graceful of form and witty of invention - Boot Owl 1985 (private collection, Sydney) being constructed from a leather boot, ping-pong balls, steel and paint.
Whiteley shared with Charles Baudelaire (1821-67), the Paris-born Symbolist poet, not only the demons of obsession and possession but also the freedom found in birds. In 'A Voyage to Cythera', from his masterpiece of collected poems, Les Fleurs du mal 1857 (Flowers of Evil), Baudelaire opened with the words 'Mon coeur, comme un oiseau, voltigeait tout joyeux' ('My heart like a bird was fluttering joyously'). And in L'Albatros from the same collection, he likens the poet to the great bird, 'Le Poète est semblable au prince des nuées' ('The poet is like the prince of the clouds') brought down from the heavens by man, exiled till death. Baudelaire and birds occupied several of Whiteley's paintings. First, there is the 1970 Portrait of Baudelaire (private collection, Melbourne) replete with painted, collaged and taxidermied birds. Whiteley's lengthy inscription on the verso ranged from 'The soaring mad pleasure of opium and wine' through 'remorse', 'disgust of human weakness', and 'to bring man up with a shock in front of themselves. To see the real motives in the heart', of self-knowledge and more ... . The visualisation of the kindred spirit on the obverse sets the collaged face of Baudelaire, stark in black and white photographic contrast, in a richly orange field, the heavy scent of the frangipani palpable in tropical splendour. The coincidence of Whiteley's escape to Fiji among the native people, when he began painting birds, recalls Baudelaire's visit to Mauritius, and Paul Gauguin in the island paradise of Tahiti. For Whiteley it was a place of refreshment after the tumult of New York, seeing and painting the Orange Fruit Dove, itself a symbol of peace feathered in exotic splendour. More related to our painting are Butcher Bird with Baudelaire's Eyes of 1972 in pen, ink, gouache and collage, and the oil painting Baudelaire's Drive 1975. (Both are in private Sydney collections.) 2 For Baudelaire's Bird 1974 Whiteley adds feathers to the oil on canvas, the symbolic image of the human spirit now elegantly profiled against a background of darkness visible, poised to take flight.
1. Barry Pearce, Brett Whiteley: Art & Life, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1995, p.164