Longueville, New South Wales, Australia 1939 – Thirroul, New South Wales, Australia 1992
Fidgeting with infinity 1966 Materials & Technique: paintings, oil, collage, pencil, photographs and fibreglass on three panels
When I first saw Fidgeting with infinity, it had a profound effect on me. It appropriated from old master tradition, yet incorporated photography and collage. In a visual mélange, my eyes absorbed dead bodies, tiny writing, a blank word balloon, a swirling road, vultures, protruding breasts, vulva, the Forbidden Fruit of Eden and a blank-faced Christ. The painting was on a side wall in the main entrance area of Philip Bacon’s home in Brisbane. I am sure that Brett Whiteley would have been pleased by my reaction. Here was a painting like few others in Australian art, a flirtation with blasphemy, challenging religion and high art simultaneously. It was so over-the-top in its intensity.
Some years later, when I was visiting the Brett Whiteley studio in Raper Street, Surry Hills, Sydney, there were many photographs and postcards pinned to the wall. There were three images of one famous work, Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ, which is held in the National Gallery, London. Whiteley had obviously remained fascinated by this wonderful early Italian Renaissance painting, which he saw in London in mid-1966, a few days after he had arrived there from Calcutta.
During ten days in Calcutta, Whiteley had come face to face with the extremes of poverty and deprivation. This had a significant impact on him and he made two paintings as a result. The first, called Calcutta (Private Collection, Belgium), showed a sitar, and a beggar with outstretched hand, a blunt statement about the impoverished country of celebrated musician Ravi Shankar.
The second painting, Fidgeting with infinity was more complex, overblown and in every way evidence of Whiteley’s extreme personality. He explained: ‘It’s strange how an addictive personality like myself, born with a gift, has this compulsion to test the gift, challenge it, push it to the edge, almost self-murder it, to see if it is still there and you are in control.’1
Whiteley wrote of his astonishment that the Piero painting was so small, and determined to respond to it with a picture of his own:
I was amazed by the tinyness of its space and scale. The actual Christ in it was only the size of a doll. I had always imagined the painting in my mind as being nearly life-size. I had seen how Christ’s feet were placed firmly on the ground, and that there was this lettuce-green, crisp, optimistic landscape behind it. In my mind I had always seen the picture as almost mural size. I was absolutely shocked, appalled to see this European space, this tiny picture. So much so that it launched me on this idea of painting a picture, a version closer to what I had in mind. I put two predellas [panels], of the road and the photograph of the vultures on it … I was trying to show two sides of the coin in the one picture – great beauty, great optimism and the best of human values, combined with evil, bleak, ultimate destruction and death.2
Whiteley’s painting references the Piero only in part of the central section, but even here he absurdly adds a languid, sexually provocative nude. It is a mark of Whiteley’s humanism and compassion, but also his capacity for bombastic self-delusion, that Fidgeting with infinity negotiates between sincere manifesto and empty rhetoric. It is a compelling but alienating image, with a similar effect as that on a theatre-goer attending Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. This is either its success or its failure and people tend to love or loathe the painting. Is this a highway to heaven, the road to hell or to nowhere, or the route that circumvents religion and hope, passing Golgotha and a road strewn with victims of famine?
Fidgeting with infinity was a feature work in Whiteley’s September 1967 exhibition at Marlborough Gallery in London. The show failed and Whiteley’s British career crashed, leaving him to journey in the next few years from New York to Fiji to Sydney, where he was embraced as Australia’s first superstar artist. He became resigned to stop tormenting himself ‘over how much the world is stuffed up’3 and to stop painting didactic works. ‘There is too much pollution and pain in the world already. I just want to add some beauty’4, he declared, and went to paint works such as Interior with time past 1976.
Brian Kennedy 2002
1Janet Hawley Encounters with Australian Artists St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press 1993 p.37.
2Sandra McGrath Brett Whitley Sydney: publisher 1979 pp.78–9.
3Hawley op.cit. p.41.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002