Ken Whisson was one of the great originals of Australian art. Had he ever become a household name he would have felt something was wrong. Whisson had no desire to live or paint in a conventional way. Like Giacometti, even when he began to sell work for higher prices he continued to live like a monk in his cell. Those who visited him in his lodgings in St. Kilda, Perugia or Kings Cross, were always struck by his minimal furnishings and bare walls. While most artists aspire to a bigger and better studio, Whisson painted most of his works on the kitchen table.
Whisson, who died from a sudden heart attack in his apartment in the Cross, was farewelled at the Cell Block Theatre, National Art School, on 26 March. As his paintings flashed up on a big screen, friends and family spoke warmly about this most idiosyncratic of artists. A short film by Maya Huxley, from 1973, showed Whisson in his tiny St. Kilda lodgings, discussing left-wing politics with an interviewer, while others told us how brilliant he was, how desperately poor and underrated.
Politics was Whisson’s lifelong passion. He used the full vocabulary of Marxist terms, from “dialectical materialism” to “means of production”, but it would be too simplistic to call him a Communist. If Whisson wore any label, he was an anarchist, motivated by a fierce sense of justice. When he moved to Italy in 1977, it wasn’t to be in close proximity to the masterpieces of the Renaissance, it was because he found Italian politics so uniquely exciting. In that year the Autonomia movement was at its height, the country rocked by demonstrations, riots, strikes and terrorism. It was an irresistible attraction for a diehard radical who would pick up a flag and march in the streets if the cause was just.
At the memorial service many speakers told stories about Whisson’s politics, but they also acknowledged that his paintings and drawings were devoid of dogma or proselytising. A typical Whisson painting obeyed no rules or conventions, it was a free translation of the artist’s thoughts, memories and observations, in which trivial details might take centre stage. The results were enigmatic and intriguing. He once told me how shocked he was when a reviewer praised his work for “good technique”. Apparently, he had spent all his whole life trying to get away from good technique!
For almost all of Whisson’s admirers, and I count myself in this group, a first encounter with his work was disconcerting, as his pictures seemed so awkward and cack-handed, contemptuous of the hallmarks of good taste. It took time, and repeated viewings, before these paintings came alive. Eventually they became an addiction.
Ken Whisson was born in Lilydale outside of Melbourne in 1927, into a family immersed in left-wing politics. At the memorial service, his niece, Alicia Whisson, told of Ken’s parents, Ron and Elsie, who ran a grocery and general store, and brought up three sons: “Ken the artist, Max the doctor and inventor, and Keith the social justice warrior and trade unionist.” The boys were encouraged to be independent thinkers and always speak their minds. Ken was the last of that generation.
An early aptitude for drawing took Whisson to Swinburne Tech, where he studied from 1944-45, before leaving, believing that the emphasis on commercial art skills was doing him more harm than good. He began studying privately with émigré Cossack artist, Danila Vassilieff, from whom he learnt “if you’re going to be an artist, you’re going to do it hard”. Vassilieff’s emphasis on spontaneity and intuition would stay with Whisson for the rest of his career.
Vassilieff brought his pupil into contact with artists such as Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, Sidney Nolan, and others associated with the patrons, John and Sunday Reed. The young Whisson was a fringe member of the Heide Park circle while still learning his trade. He remembered that none of the expressionists or the social realists were taken seriously at the time, or sold many works. “It was,” he recalled “a really dark world, a world in which it was hard to see any glimmer of improvement.”
Whisson would come close to a nervous breakdown, but emerged with a remarkably resilient attitude and a talent for happiness. He explained himself with Benedetto Croce’s famous formulation: “Pessimism of of the mind, optimism of the will.”
“I didn’t sell anything for years and years,” said Whisson, talking about the aftermath of the war. He survived on jobs such as seasonal fruit picking, eking out a living from the money he put aside. As late as 1960 he was still exploring social realist subjects in paintings such as Sugar workers’ mess, but in a loose, expressive style.
Somehow, in 1954-56, he gathered together the funds for the first of two extended overseas trips, travelling to Europe, where he discovered a particular affection for the Italians. The second trip, in 1968-70, took him to Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and South-East Asia. He travelled on a shoestring, relishing new sights and experiences.
When he returned to Australia in 1970 Whisson’s work entered a purple patch. The paintings he produced from 1970-76 are some of his most striking, combining memories from his travels with brilliant colour. Motifs float through these pictures like thought bubbles. Ships, planes, cars, trees, animals, buildings, figures and faces – these were the building blocks, but every iteration was different. Paintings such as Jean’s Farm (1975) or And What Should I Do in Illyria? (1974) are roughly painted, and fluid in composition. They are like nothing else in Australian art.
What was his real subject? “What thinks and what is thought, what sees and what is seen”.
In 1977 Whisson relocated to Perugia, where he would remain until 2015. In Italy his paintings opened up, allowing a lot more space into the picture plane, and a more complex use of perspective. Kitchen Table (1982) is a good example.
There are many stories told by people who visited the artist in Perugia, most of them recalling their surprise at his spartan lifestyle, or his invincible preference for a Chinese restaurant of dubious quality. Almost every year Whisson would have an exhibition in Australia, most often with Watters Gallery in Sydney or Niagara Galleries in Melbourne. As his finances improved he would visit Australia every year, as part of an annual grand tour that would take him to favourite places in Europe and other parts of the world.
Whisson once told an interviewer he had always watched his diet and tried to stay fit, because he felt it might take 80 years to receive any recognition. As it happened, he was the subject of a touring survey show in 1987, organised by Broken Hill Art Gallery, that travelled to Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney and Wollongong. His final vindication would arrive in 2012, at the age of 84, when he was the subject of a major retrospective, Ken Whisson: As If, at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney.
As If featured no fewer than 200 works. The title was a nod to the Surrealist declaration, “Let us live as if the world really exists”. The show was a big success, revealing an artist whose mind and manner had never stood still.
In his later years, Whisson continued to paint and draw with tremendous freedom. He lived in his habitual solitary style, but spent a lot of time with friends and family. He especially enjoyed the company of younger artists, such as Joe Frost, who said at the memorial service 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 the cricket. He wrote long, lively letters – I’ve got one preserved in my copy of the As Ifcatalogue – and loved buying and distributing the craziest childrens’ books he could find. When Quentin Sprague, who is writing 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 to sing Billy Bragg’s revised version of The Internationale. As the lyrics rolled down a screen, the projector froze during the third verse, leaving the makeshift choir high and dry. Everyone laughed, realising how much Ken would have enjoyed the moment.
Kenneth Ronald Whisson is survived by his niece, Alicia Whisson, and by eight nephews, made up of three sets of brothers: Ian, Andrew, David, and Robert Whisson; Marcus and Alex Whisson; Paul and Michael Taylor.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 3 May, 2022