Baldessin/Whiteley: Parallel Visions
Brett Whiteley is a household name known by most Australians who have even the most cursory interest in the arts, while George Baldessin is known only to those knowledgeable about Australian art.
The two artists were born about a month apart in 1939 – Whiteley on Sydney’s north shore, Baldessin in a small town in the north of Italy – yet they were to have a profound impact on the course of Australian art.
Baldessin and Whiteley both enjoyed meteoric success in the 1960s and 1970s, in their respective cities of Sydney and Melbourne, and both died tragically early – Baldessin in an alcohol-fuelled single vehicle accident at the age of 39, Whiteley from a self-administered drug overdose aged 53.
Apart from biographical parallels, in their work, the two artists tackled many similar concerns and, through their art, complemented one another.
If European art of the first half of the 20th century can to some extent be viewed as a dialectic between Picasso and Matisse, aspects of Australian art of the 1960s and 1970s can to some extent be read through the parallel visions in the art of Baldessin and Whiteley.
At a time when there was a fashion for abstraction, Baldessin and Whiteley were staunchly figurative; they rejected the prevailing cool minimalist aesthetic in favour of a deeply felt expressionism and through their art they engaged with society and its problems.
The two artists possessed different artistic personalities and pursued different stylistic conventions, but as you walk through this exhibition you constantly encounter striking similarities.
They both ask:
What does it mean to be human?
What are some of the life forces that unite us with other living beings?
How do our surroundings determine our lives?
Most significantly, both Baldessin and Whiteley believed that art really mattered and that its role was to reflect, to challenge and to better society. The universality of their quest has meant that their art is as fresh and vital for us today as it was when it was made many decades ago.
Although in their lifetime, art critics, including Elwyn Lynn in Sydney and Patrick McCaughey and Alan McCulloch in Melbourne, had drawn parallels between Baldessin and Whiteley, it has taken forty years since Baldessin’s death for these parallels to be put to the test in an exhibition.
The exhibition consists of 129 artworks, some quite small and delicate, others huge, such as Whiteley’s American Dream which stretches 22 metres and is shown in a specially constructed amphitheatre to be seen precisely as the artist intended.
Also included is Baldessin’s virtually unknown monumental aluminium relief and his breathtaking fourteen-metre-long, 25 panel frieze Occasional images from a city chamber – one of the great works in 20th century Australian graphic art.
In the exhibition, there is a mixture of the iconic pieces and works that have never been previously exhibited publicly.
As the curator of this exhibition, I have opted for minimal textual intervention. I have sought to present the visual evidence drawn from each artist’s best work and arranged it in a thematic and conceptual manner to allow for parallels to be drawn by viewers.
We have an excellent cross-section of Whiteley’s brilliant early tonal paintings and Baldessin’s wonderful early tonal intaglio prints. Whiteley’s breathtaking gambles with three-dimensional space are juxtaposed with Baldessin’s revolution in arranging sculptural masses and his reinvention of the art of printmaking.
Throughout the exhibition, in the grouping of works, I have sought to bring out parallels, for example, the question of the divided self, explored in Baldessin’s strange morphing of the personalities of the Mary Magdalene and the working girls on the Rue Saint Denis in a series of stunning monumental drawings and Whiteley’s unforgettable two sides of John Reginald Christie, as the ex-soldier and ex-postie who drank at the local pub and the deranged psychopath who murdered eight women in the neighbourhood and raped their bodies.
Baldessin and Whiteley were two of the greatest draughtsmen to emerge in Australian art of the 1960s and 1970s. Whiteley is the master of the sensuous line, the gestural flourish – a line that could convey the moment of ecstasy. Baldessin’s line is awkward, edgy and wondrously expressive – a line that brings to mind both Goya and Rembrandt. Throughout this exhibition we can trace the graphic element in the work of both artists – through sculptures, paintings, prints and drawings.
The evidence is presented for you to contemplate and to come to your own conclusions.
Visually, this is an exhibition with a huge ‘wow’ factor. But after the initial impact, some of the philosophical profundity and the spiritual power emerges.
Now that decades have passed since the death of the two artists, I feel that the time has arrived to move the focus away from their colourful but ultimately tragic biographies and to look exclusively at their achievement as artists.
Both Baldessin and Whiteley have given so much to Australian art and it is timely for us to celebrate this.
Ars longa, vita brevis – which may be rendered into English as “Life is short, but art is eternal”
Baldessin/Whiteley: Parallel Visions
National Gallery of Victoria, Australia
Ian Potter Centre, Federation Square, Melbourne
31 Aug. 2018 – 28 Jan. 2019
GRISHIN'S ART BLOG
Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA is the author of more than 25 books on art, including Australian Art: A History, and has served as the art critic for The Canberra Times for forty years. He is an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, Canberra; Guest Curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; and Honorary Principal Fellow, Faculty of Arts, at the University of Melbourne.
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