An image of Alchemy

Brett Whiteley

(Australia, England 07 Apr 1939 – 15 Jun 1992)


Brett Whiteley Studio, Surry Hills
Further information

Soon after his return to Australia from New York via Fiji in November 1969, Brett Whiteley began to exercise his imagination towards the conception of one of his greatest masterpieces. The multi-panelled 'Alchemy', which he completed in Sydney between early 1972 and January 1973, summarised a myriad accumulation of sources and influences – echoing to an extent The American dream realised in New York four years earlier but without its political outrage – manifesting itself finally as an autobiographical journey of gigantic, almost impossible ambition. Everything else Whiteley painted, before and after, can be measured against it.

Spread over eighteen panels, 'Alchemy' may be read from right to left as a birth-to-death vision; from elemental earthly existence through startling passages of flesh, fornication and the landscape of the artist's youth, coded along the way with collages of texts, writings, various attachments of objets trouve, to the climactic spectacle of a white tentacled sun set against a gold background on panels recycled from Whiteley's recent portrait of Yukio Mishima. This Japanese writer had committed seppuku two years earlier, having decided the gap between art and action could only be closed by ritual death. Removing the figurative presence of his original subject, Whiteley projected an idea of Mishima's final vision, as the sword cut into his flesh; a luminescent flash of transmutation into pure abstract spirit of white against gold; and a perfect image for the reductive climax of 'Alchemy'.

This left hand side was in fact the technical starting point of the painting, as Whiteley moved progressively left to right, away from the Mishima panels. But the composition can be read in either direction, even from the centre, where the word 'IT' holds the fulcrum between opposing extremes; between birth at one end and death at the other; between visceral humanity emerging from the cool realms of sea and sky, and the molten gold of spiritual enlightenment.

Completed in the gasworks studio not far from his house on Lavender Bay, 'Alchemy' also reflects something of Whiteley's personal life at that time. The stress of his ambition had gone hand-in-hand with tensions in his relationship with his wife Wendy during the painting of The American dream, leading to damaging bouts of alcohol abuse. Again he set out to test the capacity for art to influence society, to change it for the better. Entranced, even envious of the power of pop musicians, he dreamt of 'Alchemy' touching a mass audience, moving it with esoteric fragments of wisdom gleaned from cursory reading of philosophers, poets and novelists, and the lyrics of popular musicians. This could be a painting, he imagined, that might say it all. But he and Wendy were soon to drift into a life of more dangerous drug usage.

When it was first exhibited at the Bonython Gallery in January 1973, 'Alchemy' was accompanied by a catalogue assemblage of images and words from Whiteley's notebooks. Collectively this assemblage fails to make much sense, with quotes from Huysmans, Bacon, Dante, Dylan and many others, mingled with the artist's own aphorisms and anecdotes. However, there are occasional shafts of insight, in his own inimitable language, into the artist’s essential process: "'Alchemy' is the business of seeing what doesn't exist" he wrote; "The quest is the transmutation of Self"; "Most of this painting was first seen with the eyes closed in the pitch of night, awake"; or the often quoted "Art should astonish, transmute, transfix. Work at the tissue between truth and paranoia" [Barry Pearce, 'Brett Whiteley: art & life', London: Thames and Hudson, 1995, pg.34].

It seems Whiteley anticipated critics pointing out the connections of his surrealist imagery with the fifteenth-century painter Hieronymus Bosch, writing "I didn't look at Bosch once while painting any of this … This painting is about my inner paddock, which maybe means that all inner paddocks have similarness" [Statement amongst various papers in the artist's estate]. There is no doubt, nevertheless, that Bosch played an important part in both Alchemy and The American dream. On the way back from Morocco in June 1967 Whiteley went to Madrid to see the works of the Flemish master there, and was overwhelmed: "Incredible! ... What care and such menacing twitching really seen not invented images", he exclaimed on a postcard [Postcard to his mother Beryl Whiteley from Madrid, 20 June 1967, possession of recipient, Sydney].

He began reading about Bosch, and Paracelsus, the early sixteenth-century Swiss alchemist intrigued by the possibility of turning base metals into gold, viewed as a metaphor of the quest for divine transcendence. One idea associated with Paracelsus's theories was that beauty was merely a temporal skin, underneath which lay another quite opposing reality. The dichotomy between the seen and unseen, relevant to the phenomenon of Surrealism centuries later, was in accord with Whiteley's thinking. But above all, he drew from these theories an idea of painting as a vehicle by which life could become changed into art, the apparently ordinary into something extraordinary. Through all the rich detail and layers of 'Alchemy' this became its singular unifying theme.

Barry Pearce, Head Curator of Australian Art, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2005

"Brett was not schizophrenic, but he was fascinated with the schizophrenic state of mind, in the sense of being split between good and evil – and what did power mean? What was the price to pay? Did it always lead to a dramatic event like Mishima's suicide? He destroyed his portrait of Mishima, joined the remaining panels, and 'Alchemy' just grew from there. There is paradise in hell in it, and all those little details are both humorous and quite frightening. Beautifully drawn, it is like a recipe. All the alchemists had various recipes for going about the transformation. The thing of base metal to gold is the most meaningless bit. More important is the search for the Holy Grail, the connection between heaven and hell, animal and spiritual. This was Brett's recipe … Quite a difficult picture to take in, in one hit. You do have to travel the journey with it."

Wendy Whiteley, 1995

oil and mixed media on wood
205.8 x 1617.0 x 3.3 cm overall :
a - panel 1 (from right to left), 205.8 x 61 x 3.3 cm
b - panel 2 (from right to left), 205.8 x 81.3 x 3.3 cm
c - panel 3 (from right to left), 205.8 x 86.3 x 3.3 cm
d - panel 4 (from right to left), 205.8 x 86.3 x 3.3 cm
e - panel 5 (from right to left), 205.8 x 86.1 x 3.3 cm
f - panel 6 (from right to left), 205.8 x 81.3 x 3.3 cm
g - panel 7 (from right to left), 205.8 x 81.3 x 3.3 cm
h - panel 8 (from right to left), 205.8 x 81.2 x 3.3 cm
i - panel 9 (from right to left), 205.8 x 162.7 x 3.3 cm
j - panel 10 (from right to left), 205.8 x 81.3 x 3.3 cm
k - panel 11 (from right to left), 205.8 x 81.3 x 3.3 cm
l - panel 12 (from right to left), 205.8 x 81.2 x 3.3 cm
m - panel 13 (from right to left), 205.8 x 86.2 x 3.3 cm
n - panel 14 (from right to left), 205.8 x 75.9 x 3.3 cm
o - panel 15 (from right to left), 205.8 x 81.2 x 3.3 cm
p - panel 16 (from right to left), 205.8 x 81.3 x 3.3 cm
q - panel 17 (from right to left), 205.8 x 120.5 x 3.3 cm
r - panel 18 (from right to left), 205.8 x 120.6 x 3.3 cm
Signature & date

Not signed. Not dated.

Purchased by the New South Wales State Government 1994, transferred to the Gallery 1998
Accession number
© Wendy Whiteley