artist with no desire to follow the rules
Vassilieff brought his pupil into contact with artists such as Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, Sidney Nolan and others associated with patrons John and Sunday Reed. Young Whisson was a marginal member of the Heide Park circle while still learning his craft. He recalled that none of the Expressionists or Social Realists were taken seriously at the time, nor did they sell much work. “It was,” he recalls, “a really dark world, a world in which it was hard to see any glimmer of improvement.”
Whisson reportedly came close to a nervous breakdown, but emerged with a remarkably resilient attitude and a knack for happiness. It was explained by the famous formula: “Pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will.”
“I haven’t sold anything for years and years,” Whisson said, speaking of the aftermath of the war. He survived through jobs such as picking seasonal fruits, living off the money he saved. Until 1960 he was still exploring subjects of social realism in paintings such as Sugar Workers’ Messbut in a loose and expressive style.
Somehow, in 1954-56, he collected the funds for the first of two long trips abroad, traveling to Europe, where he discovered a special affection for Italians. The second trip, in 1968-70, took him to Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. He traveled with few means, savoring new sights and experiences.
When he returned to Australia in 1970, Whisson’s work went into a purple stain. The paintings he produced from 1970 to 1976 are among his most striking, combining memories of his travels with brilliant colors. Patterns float through these images like thought bubbles. Ships, planes, cars, trees, animals, buildings, characters and faces – these were the basics, but each iteration was different. Paintings such as John’s Farm (1975) or And what should I do in Illyria? (1974) are crudely painted and fluid in composition. They are unlike anything else in Australian art.
What was his real subject? “What thinks and what is thought, what sees and what is seen.”
In 1977 Whisson moved to Perugia, where he would remain until 2015. In Italy his paintings opened up, allowing much more space in the picture plane and a more complex use of perspective. Kitchen table (1982) is a good example.
People who have visited the artist in Perugia tell many stories, most recalling their surprise at his spartan lifestyle or his indomitable preference for a Chinese restaurant of dubious quality. Almost every year Whisson had an exhibition in Australia, most often with the Watters Gallery in Sydney or the Niagara Galleries in Melbourne. As his finances improved, he visited Australia every year on a major annual tour that took him to favorite places in Europe and other parts of the world.
Whisson once told an interviewer that he always watched his diet and tried to stay in shape because he thought it might take 80 years to receive any kind of recognition. In fact, it was the subject of a traveling exhibition in 1987, organized by the Broken Hill Art Gallery, which traveled to Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney and Wollongong. His final justification will arrive in 2012, at the age of 84, when he is the subject of a major retrospective, Ken Whisson: As ifat the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, and at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney.
As if no less than 200 works. The title was a nod to the surreal statement “Let’s live as if the world really exists”. The show was a great success, revealing an artist whose spirit and manner had never stopped.
In his later years, Whisson continued to paint and draw with immense freedom. He lived in his usual solitary style, but spent a lot of time with friends and family. He especially enjoyed the company of young artists, such as Joe Frost, who said at the memorial service that he was proud to count Whisson as a mentor.
Whisson was a voracious reader of literature, politics, history, and philosophy. His hidden passions, according to his niece, were classical music and cricket. He wrote long animated letters – I have one preserved in my copy of the As if catalog – and loved buying and distributing the craziest children’s books he could find. When Quentin Sprague, who writes a monograph, tried to get Whisson to reconcile his lifelong passions for art and politics, he replied: “Any attempt to find a new way of seeing things is a form of politics .
The memorial service ended with a room full of people standing up to sing Billy Bragg’s revised version of The International. As the lyrics rolled across a screen, the projector froze during the third verse, leaving the makeshift chorus high and dry. Everyone laughed, realizing how much Ken would have enjoyed the moment.
Kenneth Ronald Whisson is survived by his niece, Alicia Whisson, and eight nephews, consisting of three sets of brothers: Ian, Andrew, David and Robert Whisson; Marcus and Alex Whisson; Paul and Michael Taylor.