RETURN AGAIN THE BRITTLE WINTER, 1971
oil on composition board
61.0 x 82.0 cm
inscribed verso: RETURN AGAIN THE BRITTLE WINTER / WHEN A CHILD MADE WISE BY THE SEA / LEARNED FROM ITS SEASONAL CYCLES / THE TRUTH OF TIDES / FLACH BACK AGAIN / THE BRITTLE WINTER / TO RAY HUGHES / 11 ENOGGERA TCE, / RED HILL, BRISBANE
Ray Hughes Gallery, Brisbane (label attached verso)
The Collection of Colin and Elizabeth Laverty, Sydney, acquired from the above in September 1991
Ken Whisson Paintings 1957 – 1985, Broken Hill City Art Gallery, New South Wales, 1985; then touring to: Heide Park and Art Gallery, Melbourne; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; Power Gallery of Contemporary Art, Sydney; Wollongong City Art Gallery, New South Wales, cat. 15 (illus. in exhibition catalogue)
Ken Whisson: As If, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 17 March – 15 July 2012; then touring to: Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 28 September – 25 November 2012, cat. 56
McDonald, J., Ken Whisson Paintings 1947 – 1999, with writings and talks by the artist, Niagara Publishing, Melbourne, 2001, p. 36 (illus.)
Barkley G., and Harding, L., Ken Whisson: As If, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne and Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2012, p. 151 (illus.)
By the early 1970s Ken Whisson had abandoned any obligation to painterly traditions; his paintings from this period, the oils on board in particular, exhibit a direct uncompromising approach which is purely and utterly intuitive. These works are defined by an absence of conventional technique something that Whisson strived to achieve. Arguably his unorthodox approach is as equally difficult to master as the dry academic techniques so widely recognised as ‘good painting’.
Return Again the Brittle Winter, 1971, is a beautifully evocative title for a painting which centres on the poem, A Boy’s Past (c1960) by Keith Smith (b.1939). Both the painting and the poem aim to unravel images drawn from the boy’s memories of a seaside childhood. The poet was a regular visitor to Whisson’s Carlton studio during the late 1960s and early 1970s, where he would sit and watch the artist paint. His poem, A Boy's Past, was first published in The Bulletin in 1964, and begins... ‘Flash back the brittle winters, when a boy made wise by the sea, learned its tides and seasons’. As each following stanza conveys the boy’s reflections on his boyhood’s past, Whisson’s brooding forms and shadows convey the dramatic undertow of the poem; ‘the crash of breakers threatening doom, the round dark track of thunder’.
Whisson’s work is so deeply rooted in memory, he has said that his paintings reveal memories that he himself cannot remember; ‘certainly my paintings have a much better memory than I do for the things I’ve seen’.1 By painting the picture through the memories of the poet, Whisson distances himself further from his subject enabling him to abstract the painting more freely, as he draws on the poem. In a pictorial twist Whisson places the boy at the lower front edge of the picture looking inward and upward as though watching a movie of his past.
There is a profound clarity or purity about Whisson’s paintings. Apart from several early works where the influence of Danila Vassilieff and Sidney Nolan is evident, the majority are totally original paintings. They are direct and uncompromised pictures in every way. To own a Whisson is to belong to a club, it demonstrates a collector’s shared commitment to an art that is not simply fashionable, but deeply seeded in ideas and painterly possibilities.
1. The artist cited in Ken Whisson Paintings 1957-1985, Broken Hill City Art Gallery, New South Wales, 1985, p. 19
A BOY’S PAST (c.1960):
Flash back the brittle winters
when a boy made wise by the sea
learned its tides and seasons.
Echo in his earshell by submarine tone
the crash of breakers threatening doom,
the round dark track of thunder.
Show faded childhood stark:
the filtered shadow framed
in the eye, image on image.
Pierce the extinct galaxy,
extract, dissect, replace,
each isolated memory.
Strip away the tense skin:
reveal the crouching demon
caged in the quivering stone.
By KEITH VINCENT SMITH