Still life with Pee-Wee's egg 1976 signed and dated 'Brett Whiteley / 1976' lower right; Inscribed 'Still Life with Pee Wee's Egg 1976' lower right oil on canvas 88.0 x 61.0cm (34 5/8 x 24in).
PROVENANCE Wendy Whiteley, Sydney (gift from the artist) Dr Sam Shub, Melbourne Niagara Galleries, Melbourne The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1995
EXHIBITED Recent Interiors, Still Lifes, Windowscapes, Sculptures and Ceramics, Australian Galleries, Melbourne, 21 September 5 October 1976, cat. no. 11 (label attached verso) Brett Whiteley: Art and Life, touring exhibition, 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. no. 97
LITERATURE Sandra McGrath, Brett Whiteley, Bay Books, Sydney, 1979, p. 203 (illus.) Barry Pearce, et al, Brett Whiteley: Art and Life, exh. cat., Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1995, p. 232, pl. 97 (illus.)
Still life with Pee-Wee's egg is Whiteley at his most withheld and beautiful. He is best known for his multifaceted work like Self portrait in the studio, which won the Archibald Prize in 1976, the year Still life with Pee-Wee's egg was painted. But in this work, there are no sumptuous blues, radiant oranges and yellow - colour is suppressed where it becomes an arrangement in silky-pale half-tones. It is soft and luxurious, and offers a subtle acknowledgement to the tradition of still life painters who preceded him.
But it was not always such. The subjects of Whiteley's work from the early 60s, his London years, were lush abstractions. Shortly after this, figurative works emerged out of the darker side of human conduct - the 'Christie Series' (exhibited Marlborough New Galleries, London, 1965) -a neighbourhood subject, where a decade earlier John Christie had murdered several women while posing as a doctor. The pathological side of human sexuality fascinated Whiteley. And we shouldn't underestimate the influence of his friendship with Francis Bacon at the time, one of the great painters of disturbed psychological conditions.Whiteley's reputation was at an early high, and showing no sign of diminishing.
In the London works and everything that followed, painterly lyricism was an enduring characteristic. More than any other Australian artist, Whiteley's years in London attracted huge interest. He participated in important exhibitions (in Europe and America, too), including the Whitechapel Gallery's Recent Australian Painting in 1961. Whitely was 22 years of age when the Tate Gallery purchased his abstract, Untitled red painting 1960. He was not trying to impress with any kind of derivation or extension of Antipodean figuration, rather his effortless, fluid and free-wheeling impulses marked him as distinctly individual, never representative of some kind of peculiar Australian tendency.
When he returned to Australia in 1969 and settled in Lavender Bay on Sydney's north shore, he was regarded as an internationally aware Australian artist with precocious talent.This turned attention to his personality - his look, his lifestyle becoming social and media fodder for all and sundry. It's where the artist sometimes fights to liberate the cult of personality from the actuality of the work itself.
His work from the 1970s is marked by a enchanting calm where his surroundings became the wellspring for his art. In the year that Still life with Pee-Wee's egg was painted, Whiteley not only won the Archibald Prize but also the John Sulman Prize for genre painting with Interior with time past. It's an interior with a view through a window to Sydney Harbour, a drawing of sex on an easel and keenly observed objects of Asian art, especially Chinese. These are not simply decorative or compositional elements; they offer an obvious connection to the artist's interest in Chinese ink painting. The influence of this on his sparse lineal drawings is self-evident - but it is an indebtedness to technique and approach to drawing rather than aping stylistic appearances.
The Lavender Bay works fluoresce in an orchestration of orange, yellow, blue and white a perpetual shimmer of exalting the things that matter to the artist. Amongst the grandeur of Whiteley's year of 1976, we find him at his most restrained and masterful. Still life with Pee-Wee's egg is consumed with an austere elegance. Inanimate objects arranged on a flat surface - the genre of still life - has been a recurring subject throughout art history. Whiteley's still life depicts objects in a delicate and unassuming poise, painted in thin glazes and creamy impasto. While it is possible to think of the compressed compositions and pale ochres in Giorgio Morandi's still lifes, and the vertical compositions in Amedeo Modigliani's, or the opalescence of the School of Paris, Whiteley was not slavishly dependent on any of them. He respected art history and became himself.
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