By Robert Frolla


Brett Whiteley is a cultural icon in Australia’s art history. Nearly a quarter century after his death, he and his work have been such a unique force that they have not been replicated since.


Now, his legacy will come to life in a new documentary film, Whiteley.


Whiteley, directed by James Bogle, is a visual collation of the life and legacy of one of Australia’s most celebrated artists. The film, told in Brett’s own voice, sheds a rare light into the artist’s mind, as well as shows never-before-seen archival footage spanning over four decades.


“It was my intention with this film – my mission if you like – to collect, collate, and create an intensely interpretive, penetrating and emotional experience of Whiteley’s life,” says Bogle.


“He believed that all great artists were larger than life. He believed in the fantastical romance of towering ‘characters’ like Van Gogh and Dali, and believed that he needed a story to equal that stature. In many ways, this film is the story of Brett forever reaching out for this.”


A major part of Whiteley is Whiteley’s passionate relationship with his ex-wife and guardian of his legacy, Wendy. Having believed she had a better understanding of colour than him, Whiteley often turned to Wendy for her criticism of his work. Whiteley adored Wendy, but would also have extra-marital affairs. However, many of his most successful paintings were of Wendy, and were the more riveting due to her uninhibited expressiveness before Brett’s gaze.


In Whiteley, Bogle makes great use of Whiteley’s personal notebooks and diaries to illustrate such personal moments in the artist’s life. Using actors to portray Whiteley’s thoughts of rejection and fear, his introspection, and his passionate and intense moments between him and Wendy, Bogle eschews the standard documentary tone to express Whiteley’s larger-than-life personality.


“Every piece of the dialogue in this film is authentic […] The private perspective is so important to this film: the moments of triumph, confusion, achievement and destruction; the intimacy of family moments, the notebook entries about personal issues like fear, drugs, anger, rejection, paranoia,” Bogle outlines.


Despite this notorious personality, his infidelity, and his contradictory nature, Whiteley had a vigorous and no-nonsense work ethic, a thorough knowledge of art history, and a relentless will to take risks in his own work. These earnest traits, coupled with his intense nature, ultimately helped him to become a big figure in Australia’s art scene in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.


Bogle believes Whiteley will forever be a “complex genius”, and will always be important as an art figure who helped shape “our country’s sense of itself.”


“Whiteley wanted to be great and be recognized for that greatness. As a man, he was riven with contradictions. He was both public and private; he was outrageous, introspective, absurd, witty, dark, exhilarating and he was brilliant.”


Whiteley will be showing at Cinema Nova from 11 May. You can watch the trailer here.




Robert is a freelance editor for Busybird Publishing, and has edited for Writers Victoria’s The Victorian Writer and Phantasmagoria Magazine.

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