Opens: May 11
Genre: Art documentary
Duration: 94 minutes

Even those not well-acquainted with the art of the late Brett Whiteley are likely to know the legend – that of a comet that burned brightly through the art world, unleashing a self-destructive tailwind that caught up not only himself but his loved ones. This already potent story, both inspiring and sad, was refracted to most ordinary citizens through the distorting lens of the Australian media, where prurience and moralising were free to do their dirty work.

Among the minimum requirements for a documentary on Whiteley is the need to present a vivid and truthful account of the artist’s life bolstered by honest reminiscence and insightful commentary from those close to him, such as his long-time partner Wendy Whiteley and his sister Frannie Hopkirk, as well as the key art world professionals who recognised his talent.

To avoid hagiography, you’d want the film to be honest about his failings as well as his personal strengths and artistic powers, to be upfront about his alcohol and heroin abuse and their effect on himself and those around him – but crucially without falling into the twin perils of either sensationalism or myth-making.

Of course, it would be mandatory to feature lots of his paintings – easy to represent on film – but not presented dutifully, rather organised so as to reflect and bolster the narrative thread and key themes, and presented so persuasively that newcomers to his art would be impressed and old admirers inspired to return to the work.

Brett Whiteley

James Bogle’s film not only satisfies the above conditions but does so with great panache; its energy sucks in the viewer from the opening, a fast-moving montage of self-portraits. From this introduction, it dives back to Whiteley’s childhood at a rural boarding school, where he turned to art as a way of dealing with his alienation and made the revelatory chance discovery of Van Gogh
via a book he found on a church floor, inspiring him to make the creation of art his life’s work.

From here the story moves to art school and a rapid professional rise, including sojourns in France, London and New York and a triumphant return to Australia, where he painted some of his most iconic images of Sydney Harbour, but also descended into a maelstrom of self-destruction.

The voice of Brett is a constant on the soundtrack – either in film and audio recordings or spoken by an actor from letters and print interviews, though like so many artists, he was not especially good at translating the whirlpool of images and ideas inside his head into words that others might readily understand.

Also ever-present is his muse and ex-wife Wendy, whose fleshy presence was a key influence on his artistic fascination with the female form. That they were bound together in a destructive net of co-dependency, despite their affairs (mainly his), is made abundantly clear. All credit to Bogle then for walking the tightrope so confidently. This is a major documentary that deserves to be seen by anyone in Australia with even a passing interest in art.