Revelations that an astute art purchase by local government has been missing for more than 16 months leads us to question: Where's Whiteley?
Renowned Australian artist, the late Brett Whiteley's AO, Waves V was purchased by the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in 1976 at a cost of $800. The drawing has never been heard of again and has never been hung.
Whilst estimating the current price of an artwork such as Waves V remains difficult, a Whiteley recently broke the record for the sale of an Australian artist's work at auction when a large canvas titled Henri's Armchair (1974-75) sold for $6.136 million (including buyer's premium) during November 2020.
And on September 22, 2016, a series of six pencil drawings called Moods Of The Sea (1972-73) with one of the pieces titled Waves sold at auction for $36,818 (including buyer's premium).
Waves V was reported missing during 2018 by staff at the museum who were alerted to the anomaly by researchers. Subsequently, QVMAG reviewed the auditing and archiving procedures of their significant inventory.
At the time, Launceston council general manager, Michael Stretton told The Examiner, "Staff have undertaken a preliminary search of the gallery's storage containers, however at this point we have been unable to locate the drawing.
"The QVMAG's collection is extensive, with more than 200,000 individual items and, unfortunately, it remains possible the work has been incorrectly catalogued at some point in the past 42 years and will be difficult for us to locate," he said.
The whereabouts of the QVMAG Whiteley remains as enigmatic as the artist's life.
Last week, a senior Launceston City Council source hypothesised about the location of Waves V: Was it accidentally taken by a volunteer sorting through papers? Is it hanging in an old lady's house and she is a) unaware what it is or b) too scared to return it or say anything? Were QVMAG records so poor that there could be other missing works in locals' homes? the source posed.
Brett Whiteley lived a stereo-typical artists' life. He was born in Sydney in 1939 and died of an opiate overdose in 1992.
A prolific drawer, painter, and sculptor, Whiteley was an outstanding draftsman which underpinned his success as an artist. Waves V would be just one example of his brilliance.
He was recognised by Tate Modern, London in 1961 when Whiteley's abstract work, Untitled Red Painting (1960) was purchased making him the youngest artist on show across the galleries.
Abstract art permits the artist to detail the way they see the world. With line and shape and colour and shade and tone they share their vision, often confronting and often devoid of reality.
Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles (1952), purchased by the Whitlam Government for $1.3 million in 1973 and displayed in the National Gallery of Australia, is considered an abstract masterpiece. It had an estimated value of $350 million in 2016.
During the 1970s, Whiteley became friends with and influenced by the figurative artist, Francis Bacon whose disfigured post Second World War portraits brought a rawness to death and trauma and wounding.
He also mastered neo-expressionism with German artist Edvard Munch one of the movements finest exponents. It allowed him to return to more traditional ways of expressing the human form through nudes, although they would often maintain abstract influence.
Whiteley lived in Australia, Europe, England, the US, and Fiji where he was deported for drug use, returning to Australia. His life was both productive and tragic. His muse, Wendy Whiteley OAM (nee Julius) became his wife in 1962. They endured a tumultuous relationship, were often compared to F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and divorced shortly before his death. She is credited with being a major contributor to his artistic inspiration and achievements. Their daughter, Arkie, died of cancer in 2001 aged just 37.
Communities are richer when governments invest in the arts.
The arts strengthen our cultural understanding, recording the past, predicting the future, and challenging our thinking. It is often artists who assist to shift views or change opinions.
Purchasing or showcasing art provides opportunity for those with talent to have their works appreciated. Artists who are famous in life or in death, along with those not yet understood come to our attention because we see them in performance or hanging in galleries and boardrooms and offices and kitchens.
MONA has increased our thirst for the arts. No longer are we simply captivated by midland landscapes depicted through oil on canvas. We are thrilled to welcome the unusual and the out there including gatherings like Mona Foma and Junction Arts Festival and The Unconformity.
I recently visited the Devonport Regional Gallery at the Paranaple Arts Centre. The magnificent building brings together the business of local government with a library and gallery and several other stunning spaces. To view astute purchases such as a Wolfhagen, a Woodruff, an Arnold, and a Smith was inspiring.
Waves V by Brett Whiteley may never be recovered by QVMAG. And, consequently, all we can hope for is that our collections are catalogued and stored like the rarest of masterpieces.
- Brian Wightman is a former Tasmanian Attorney-General and school principal
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