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Brett Whiteley - Difficult Pleasure

55m Arts, Painting, Biography, Documentary 1989

Synopsis: The program starts with a look at Whiteley’s studio — a Pandora’s Box in which there are clues to his free-ranging talent. He talks of being “born with a gift” and the desire to test and abuse that gift, to enhance it with addiction but ultimately to share it. Whiteley is seen at a huge blank canvas as he makes the first strokes. During the film this work reaches completion.

The artist talks of eroticism - the major driving force behind his painting and one of the themes of the film. The landscapes of Byron Bay, Sydney Harbour, Oberon, and Tuscany dissolve between reality and his paintings. He says he sees “sexuality in everything – trees, mountains, in fruit”. His paintings of the Olgas bear this out.

The film-makers travel with him and his girlfriend to London where he makes a drawing in a London cab. He then visits the Chamber of Horrors at Madam Tussaud’s and talks of his Christie series of paintings.

Back in Australia Bondi Beach is where he talks of painting the nude and the difference between pornography and eroticism. “As long as it is about love, it’s OK,” he says.

Whiteley’s greatest influence is Sir Francis Bacon and in the film he embarks on a major portrait ultimately destined for the Archibald Prize competition. In this sequence he applies interesting techniques as he carves the portrait and slides one half slightly over the other to create tension. References to Bacon are apparent in Whiteley’s work.

The portrait is a difficult facet of painting and for Whiteley his Van Gogh series is very close to his heart and provides a direct link to the moment that inspired him to become a painter.

He reveals that in 1952, while unhappily tucked away at a provincial boarding school in Bathurst, NSW, he saw a small book of Van Gogh’s paintings lying on the chapel floor. From that moment, “everything took on an expandingness and I knew I wanted to give my life to painting”.

The film concludes with sequences of Whiteley’s quirky but beautiful “Birds” and “Sculptures”.

He advises the young artist: “Lie and cheat and distort as much as you can; that is the beginning of difficult pleasure.”

Commentary: “A biographical documentary that follows Australian artist Brett Whiteley as he travels from his studio in Sydney to London. Whiteley started painting in the 1960s in London and Paris before returning to Sydney. He has painted landscapes, portraits, tributes to other painters like Francis Bacon and Vincent van Gogh and later in life created sculptures. He responds frankly to filmmaker Don Featherstone’s prompting, offering observations on how to get started as a painter, and reflecting on his drug addiction, his self-doubt, and the political content of his paintings -

An engaging documentary that keeps you wondering what Brett Whiteley is going to say next. He is frankly revealing one moment, satirises himself the next, and gets angry when asked to explain the Van Gogh series on camera.

Producer-director Don Featherstone has made films about many artists. His credits include ‘Australia Revealed’, ‘The One Percenters’ and ‘The Beach’. The original music by Graham Tardif is particularly effective”. - Damien Parer


Don Featherstone


Don Featherstone

Research & Script

Joanna Penglase







Bonus Content

In Conversation With Wendy Whiteley


Brett Whiteley: On The Water was a major exhibition of works by one of the most celebrated Australian artists of the twentieth century. Brett Whiteley had a prodigious career spanning four decades creating some of the most iconic images in Australian art. The exhibition featured over 60 works including studies and etchings, photographs, sculptures of birds, sharks and bathers, and Unfinished Beach Polyptych : 6 imposing panels leaving The Brett Whiteley Studio for the first time in 17 years.

Bohemian Harbour


The spectacular views from Sydney’s Lavender Bay have inspired generations of artists who have celebrated its great beauty. In the 1970s and early 80s the waterfront enclave became a bayside bohemia and home to some of Sydney’s most recognisable and celebrated artists, including Brett Whiteley and Peter Kingston, along with their neighbours and friends Tom Carment, Philip Cox, Joel Elenberg, Robert Jacks, Rollin Schlicht, Martin Sharp, Garry Shead and Tim Storrier.

Film produced for ‘Bohemian Harbour: Artists of Lavender Bay’, on display at the Museum of Sydney from 1 September-25 November 2018. Courtesy City of Sydney

Wendy Whiteley at Art Gallery NSW


Brett Whiteley was one of Australia’s most innovative and original artists. Wendy Whiteley, the artist’s model and wife for over three decades, shares her recollections of Brett’s life and works in conversation with Wayne Tunnicliffe, head of Australian art, and talks in particular about the artist’s masterpiece, Self portrait in the studio 1976.

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