Bound by art: inside the head and heart of Brett and Wendy Whiteley

Diana Carroll

Experience the iconic and tumultuous artistic relationship of the Whiteleys in the latest production from Kim Carpenter’s Theatre of Image, exclusive to Riverside Theatres Parramatta as part of the 2019 Sydney Festival.
Bound by art: inside the head and heart of Brett and Wendy Whiteley

Wendy and Brett Whiteley; image supplied.

Brett and Wendy: the Whiteleys need no further introduction. Brett was the enfant terrible of Australian art, Wendy his wife and muse. Together they dominated Sydney’s art world for over two decades.

They were talented, glamorous, gregarious, and damaged. A good Whiteley can fetch millions at auction but his life ended dismally in a cheap motel on the south coast.

The pair’s legacy lives on in Brett’s work, his studio, and Wendy’s Secret Garden in Lavender Bay.

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Brett Whiteley would have been 80 in 2019; consequently, his life and work are being re-examined in a new stage production by Kim Carpenter’s Theatre of Image, presented in association with Riverside Theatres Parramatta, and in Brett Whiteley: drawing is everything, a major exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW. 

Whiteley was just 17 when he first met Wendy Julius, then 15, the woman who would become his model, muse, goddess, confidante, wife, and the mother of his only child. Later in life she also became his enemy when drugs, infidelity, and divorce came between them. After his death, she again became his champion, honouring his creative genius and keeping his memory very much alive.

Their important, influential, and tumultuous relationship is explored in Brett & Wendy: A Love Story Bound by Art, created by Theatre of Image’s founder and Artistic Director, Kim Carpenter.

‘At the heart of this piece is the struggle of the artist as child and man. The painter alone, between his mind, heart and hand, searching for the God-given moments to produce pictures that we will all identify him by,’ said Carpenter, who met and talked with Whiteley on two occasions.

‘We engaged in long, heady conversations. He was consumed by his attraction to opposites, to dichotomy. His love of beauty and nature existed alongside his insatiable attraction to evil and violence. His desperately exhausting quest to be bigger and more illuminating than life itself through his art was both his success and his failure.’

Brett & Wendy has been created with the blessing of the former Mrs Whiteley, whose assistance was vital in gaining permission to project images of Brett’s paintings onto the set as part of the narrative.

‘Brett and Wendy’s story has always captivated me and I’ve been searching for a way to bring it to the stage – the story of the minds and hearts of this fascinating couple – and, of course, to capture the art for which Brett is so well known. This story is irresistible subject matter for Theatre of Image, as the company is focused on visual storytelling,’ Carpenter said.

Wendy Whiteley will take part in a special discussion with Carpenter as part of the Festival.

‘I have had many invaluable conversations with Wendy across her kitchen table over two years. This built our trust and friendship,’ he said.

The core of the production springs from Theatre of Image’s ethos of integrating diverse disciplines and creative forms to tell a story.

Carpenter, who originally trained as a visual artist under John Olsen at the Bakery Art School in Paddington, is no stranger to exploring the meaning of an artistic life.  Previous productions by Theatre of Image about the lives of artists include Swimming In Light…the World of Lloyd Rees (Melbourne Festival, national and International tour) and White Heat - The Artist In Extremis about then company Patron Arthur Boyd.

‘Together, these works apply the vast knowledge and skills of visually-minded creators to the subjects they are absolutely passionate about,’ said Carpenter. 

‘I have had several exhibitions over the years and intend returning to the singular role of an independent artist which I've always yearned for. This project is a passion project where we climb inside the head, heart, and hand, and experience the struggle of the independent artist.’

The iconic role of Brett Whiteley is played by Paul Gleeson, an actor who has worked extensively in stage, film, and television.

Preparing for the part has been a fascinating challenge, Gleeson told ArtsHub.

‘To jump into the role of Brett Whiteley is to accept an adventure into the inherent dichotomy of all things, and like Brett himself, to begin to contemplate the spectrum of all meaning – from the simplicity and beauty of a blue wren to the dark underbelly of the violence and social discord he discovered abroad,’ he said.

‘Brett believed these things deserved a visual release based on what they mean as opposed to how they appear. Such a personally-exposing endeavour required passion and doggedness. He worked hard. He did it all with cheekiness and humour and the courage to violate convention again and again.’

The production does not shy away from the darker side of Brett and Wendy’s lives, but nor does it dwell on the sex, drugs and other artistic clichés. Instead it celebrates the love, joy and poignancy of the Whiteley world, from Brett’s rise to fame, his struggles to express himself with paint and canvas, and ultimately the road to tragedy.

‘It is a journey from Brett's joyous childhood through to the current life of Wendy and her no-longer-secret garden in Lavender Bay, which is part of the Whiteley legacy,’ Carpenter said.

Now 77, Wendy is very much the guardian of Brett’s image and legacy. She represents Brett’s world in her iconic tower home filled with an impeccably curated collection of his works, looking out over the harbour that Brett immortalised so sensuously in the ultramarine Lavender Bay series. Below the house is the extraordinary and exotic award-winning public garden she created on unused railway land as a homage to Brett and their daughter Arkie.

Wendy Whiteley is portrayed on stage by actor Leeanna Walsman, best known for her roles in Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Looking for Alibrandi.

‘Obviously playing a character who is still alive is always slightly intimidating,’ said Walsman, ‘but Wendy is being incredibly open and I feel like this is more of a representation as opposed to a literal interpretation.

‘I'm thrilled to be working with Theatre of Image, a company who explore all the potentials of storytelling through so many different elements. Weaving text, image and movement to explore the life of such an iconic Australian artist and his muse seem the perfect fit,’ she said.

Written, directed and designed by Kim Carpenter, Brett & Wendy: A Love Story Bound by Art features an ensemble cast of six actors and three dancers. It is choreographed by Lucas Jervies with a percussive score by Peter Kennard. Fragments of Brett Whiteley’s favourite songs are included in the soundscape, including music by Bob Dylan, Nina Simone and David Bowie.

The world premiere season opens at Riverside Theatres in Parramatta on 18 January as part of Sydney Festival 2019. Kim Carpenter and Wendy Whiteley will be in conversation at a special luncheon event at the Novotel Sydney Parramatta on 23 January. 

Book for Brett & Wendy at https://riversideparramatta.com.au/show/brett-and-wendy/

About the author

Dr Diana Carroll is a writer, speaker, and reviewer based in Adelaide. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines including the SMH, the Oz, Woman's Day, and B&T. Writing about the arts is one of her great passions.