Ken Whisson: As If

Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne
17 March – 15 July 2012

Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
28 September – 25 November 2012 

If anyone had doubts about the continuing ability of painting to convey arresting images of our social and psychic relations to an ever-changing world, then Ken Whisson’s major retrospective might well dispense them. I had the opportunity to see it over two days in Sydney at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), where it was promoted as the first solo exhibition by an Australian artist in the new MCA galleries. Some observers might have felt that the show (which took over an entire floor) was too much of a feast for the eyes and mind; I would argue that for such a significant artist it hardly mattered that there were two hundred exhibits, one just became immersed in the world that is distinctively ‘Whisson’. Besides, it was about time that this artist was recognised so comprehensively in this country and furthermore by a fine publication for future reference.1

In a non-stop career spanning over sixty years, this Australian expatriate artist has consistently made thoughtful and uncompromising paintings and drawings that hold their own, with piercing relevancy, into these early years of the 21st century. Just as the tragicomic plays of Samuel Beckett on human nature can never be outmoded, or the dialectical underpinnings of art writers Herbert Marcuse and John Berger be completely up-ended, Whisson explores dichotomies, exposing and oft times synthesising them. From his long-time base in Perugia, his work ‘splits’ the zones of Australia/Italy, often relying upon memory, wrestles with old and new cultures, sensing and observing insider/outsider situations and rational/irrational conditions, as well as dealing with formal picture-making concerns of abstraction/figuration. The integrity of this painter to always show us where and how we are, as much as his singular style, is what makes Whisson’s work endure. 

Trained as a young artist in wartime Melbourne in the 1940s, Whisson emerged out of the prevailing school of figurative expressionism. It is well known that he was a student of Russian émigré artist Danila Vassilieff, and that his work matured to include a debt to Sidney Nolan’s and also Albert Tucker’s, Arthur Boyd’s and John Perceval’s self-consciously modern picture constructions, their simplification of recognisable forms and unconventional perspective. Nolan’s ‘take’ on Cubism and naïve art at this time can be read through into the younger painter’s 1960s oils (two of these are illustrated in the catalogue) although there is a psychological charge that is Whisson’s own. You could see this in the sizable group of his domestic interiors and railway station pictures, which were hung together at the MCA—usefully so to preserve the power of their collective intensity. Sugar mill workers, seemingly alienated from each other, and a largish portrait of French playwright Antonin Artaud (c.1967) were also present, pointing, on one hand, to a social realism agenda (with strong ‘leftist’ leanings) and, on the other, to a disturbing existentialist mindset where dreamlike thoughts and delusions seem no less real than the world at large and where there is the abiding belief that shattering of false reality is preferable to complacency. These early pictures in ‘As if’, gnaw at you. The personages are misshapen and distorted, in rooms that are like the stage of an intimate theatre. Take Yellow Room (1962), for instance, in which the face on the left merges several personae (inner and outer) as though to express the violence behind seemingly benign appearances. The personal in Whisson’s imagery often has this disjuncture between individuals, but at the same time there is an implied eroticism. 

The same is true of the landscapes that he painted increasingly from the 1970s. Mostly these were from memory, as though to subject known places to the subconscious before readying them for the canvas. Nothing is comfortably literal in the imagery of this artist during the 1970s and after 1977 when he settled in Italy. It encompasses loose tripartite dramas of shore, sea and sky figured with favourite motifs, such as the startling quality of a black cloud on a brilliant blue ground, cars, boats (militaristic), and factories in an industrial landscape, one to journey through. While closer to home, the domestic still-lifes with books and often with birds that may symbolise freedom and escape or morph into stealth aeroplanes of war, collapse the notion of a safe haven through the terror of conflict zones. When present, figures are often sentinel-like, as in And What Should I Do in Illyria? (1974), a painting owned by artist Rosalie Gascoigne who wrote to Whisson after acquiring it, ‘It NEVER goes to sleep’. 

Restlessness is a trait throughout Whisson’s work with forms often in a liquid-like state as though in the process of movement and change. At times the pictures are compartmentalised into abstract sections and those with identifiable objects, like spliced film stock butted together and interpenetrating. Then there are those that use the white primed ground of the canvas as though it were a sheet of paper for spare enigmatic forms, such as Green Horse (1975) through to paintings like Notebook (dated 11/2/11, 14/2/11). Sandwiched in between these dates is the handsome group of ‘Flag’ pictures, hung together, two deep, at the MCA. 

These are where Whisson bridges the images of the 1970s with the later linear landscapes from the early 1980s into the present, where solid blocks of colour give way to line and flare-like and triangular forms. It is also where pure abstraction and coincidently political references are found, as in Flag for the Red Brigade and the Hudson Institute (who each in their very different ways, have the courage to think the unthinkable) of 1978. Arguably, however, the most overt political commentaries are Whisson’s From the Newspaper images of 1998–2006, where scattered-like clippings painted realistically in grey, black and green remind us of a world at war. It is this part of Whisson’s oeuvre which to my mind is the least persuasive and durable. By comparison, the high points are when his language is fluid and imaginative. When the linen support or sheet of paper takes the form of a multi-dimensional journey through landscapes brutalised by industry and the machinery of aggression. Traveller’s Tale (1982) is an example of these bleak terrains, with its stunted trees, grey concrete remnants and ominous frigates. The birds here are black portents of terror. 

On a seemingly lighter note, Whisson’s study of circus performers, as in Juggler and Pink, Yellow and Blue Aerialists (1989-90), has the artist swinging his picture plane this way and that to engender the figure as defying gravity and stillness. And when the simple still life is approached, as in Nature Vivente (2006-08) and Landscape, Still Life and Inhabitants (2010), he returns to the pictures on several occasions before they are complete, re-evaluating the rightness of forms, their colouration and position. In Nature Vivente, inside meets outside seamlessly as a table with tea set and open book share the same dramatic arena as cavorting birds, vases of succulent flowers and a full-breasted woman, close to (but then maybe not) her partner in shadow. These paintings, personal and intuitive, are necessarily notational and reflective, as though to acknowledge a debt to T.S. Eliot and the first poem of ‘The Four Quartets’ (1943) where ‘Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future /And time future contained in time past’.

For readers of this review who may have missed this comprehensive exhibition of paintings (and marvellously nervy pen drawings), I thoroughly recommend the fully illustrated catalogue Ken Whisson: As If; it will challenge and inspire you.

Ken Whisson, And What Should I do in Illyria?, 1974. Oil on composition board, 82 x 107.5cm. Gascoigne Collection, Canberra. Image courtesy and © the artist. 

Ken Whisson, Flag for the Red Brigade and the Hudson Institute (who, each in their very different ways, have the courage to think the unthinkable), 1978. Oil on canvas, 93 x 119.7cm. Courtesy the artist and Newcastle Art Gallery Collection. Purchased 1978. © the artist. 

Ken Whisson, Traveller's Tale, 1982. Oil on canvas, 79.7 x 119.5cm. Courtesy Newcastle Art Gallery, New South Wales, Gift of Ann Lewis AO 2011. © the artist. 


1. Glenn Barkley and Lesley Harding, Ken Whisson: As If, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne and Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2012. ISBN: 9781921330247.