A literary retelling of my visit to Brett Whiteley Studio Sydney

Nicole Cullinan

Brett Whiteley is an Australian artist who was born in 1939 and died in 1992 at fifty-two years of age. He died from an overdose in a seedy motel in Thirroul, Wollongong. Whiteley’s former home and workplace have been converted into the Brett Whiteley Studio museum by the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

It’s a well-worn path, the muse, the artist, the sex, the love, the destruction…The embodiment of a creative existence. A story that continues to captivate us throughout time. Why do we never tire of it? It is a desire that holds us all entranced in this doomed narrative.

 My mind is roaming freely as I wander from room to room in Brett Whiteley Studio Sydney. There are quotes on the walls, paint everywhere, and ‘The Alchemy’ resides here. That is one of his more famous works, painted in 1972. It is autobiographical, which is easy to see and understand when standing before it. It is like a surreal cacophony of all that was important to him. I remember ‘The Alchemy’, but my imagination is with the bathroom series.

The bathroom series was painted in London in 1962, the same year he married. The subject for this series; is his wife, Wendy, who remained a muse for him throughout his life. He used a series of polaroids to inspire his artwork. The series was his first major exploration into figurative art, inspired by French painter Bonnard and his bath painting. The bathroom series is seductive, sensual and intimate.

The following segway is a reimagining of the genesis of the bathroom series. By Nicole Cullinan

London Studio Apartment 1962
I can hear the water pouring into the bath, a whoosh and a splash for the first few minutes, then it settles to a gentle flowing rhythm, water on water. It takes about 5 minutes to fill a bath. The air is very cold, and the bath is too hot. I didn’t time my undressing well and now I am cold which makes it even harder to ease into the water. I take the plunge and feel hot and cold simultaneously. It’s a very strange sensation. My bottom, calves and feet are pink and searing, knees pulled up to my chest; minimising the surface area burn. I accept it has to be a freezing back bath, just for a few minutes. I lean into the cool porcelain of the bath, relief. More time passes, all temperatures reach equilibrium and I start to relax.
The air is warm and thick with condensation, the door is shut. This tiny bathroom has a dreamscape quality. A gentle mist hangs in the air and softens everything. There is no imperfection, or if it existed it can no longer be seen. There are no broken tiles, or chips in the bath, the light is luminescent. My lazy gaze wandering, the arch of my foot, slim ankles, the length of my calf. My voluptuous hips, little waist and ripe breasts. My head is lolling gently on the ledge of the bath and I’m about to slip into a state of lapsed consciousness. I drop my novel over the edge of the bath, I don’t want to lose another one. Moments later I slide into oblivion.
I smell him before I hear him. It’s a woody, musky, scent. A gentle awakening. He’s sitting on the edge of the bath looking at me. I smile. He looks content. He has a polaroid camera in one hand and a spliff in the other. I like him this way. We stay like this for what seems like an eternity. He’s talking and I’m listening, passing the spliff from one to the other. I top up the bath with some more hot water and invite him in. He doesn’t want to join me. He gestures to the polaroid. I’m not sure. He lights up another and we talk some more. I’m making the spliff all wet with my fingers, it is falling apart. He slides further along the edge of the bath, so I don’t need to touch the spliff. He turns it back in towards his hand and it looks like a little lantern, I take a long drag. I’m feeling quite relaxed now. My eyes are closed, my head is tilted, like it would take too much effort to hold it upright. I hear the crackle of the film packet being opened. I focus on the smell. It has a strong, sweet chemical smell. I am still, I am so very still…

When Whiteley painted the bathroom series, he was concerned that being married would curb his freedom from a creative and holistic point of view. The balance between security and liberty is something that most married people must contemplate throughout an enduring relationship. But, in the end, I think we all desire love. Theirs was a love story with all the elements of a grand tragedy, like they were falling over, happy in pain.

There is something for everyone in Brett Whiteley’s work. The integrity of the early works with their connectedness to nature. The bathroom series and its eroticism, or something more abstract and surreal. I can appreciate all the work, the unifying element being his truth at that moment. Brett Whiteley Studio Sydney exhibits a wide variety of his career and is a fascinating place to while away the day. (Brett Whiteley, 7 April 1939-15 June 1992)

Brett Whiteley Studio Sydney, 2 Raper Street, Surry Hills, Sydney. Opening Hours- Friday-Sunday 10 am-4 pm. Free admission is made possible by J.P. Morgan.

For more detailed information, here is a link https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/brett-whiteley-studio/