Newsletter 512

Published October 9, 2023
Anyone fancy a recent Whiteley? Going cheaply

When one already knows the ending, watching any film loses a good deal of its interest. With the ABC’s two-part special, imaginatively titled: The Whiteley Art Scandal, it seemed as if the filmmakers went out of their way to destroy any suggestion of suspense by continually flashing forward to moments in the story that let us know exactly where this tale was heading.

Surely the first rule for anyone who wants to make a gripping documentary should be: “Don’t assume every viewer already knows all about the story. Proceed as if this was completely new information – or don’t proceed at all.”

Instead, for anyone who watched both episodes consecutively on ABC iView, like I did, the constant reiterations and flash-forwards came across as tedious and counterproductive. It’s hard to escape the suspicion that the main motivation was to pad out two solid hours when there was barely enough material for one. The editing was laughable, including a lot of marginally relevant footage, and scenes we’d already seen two or three times.

Did we really need all those shots of Lavender Bay? All those scenes of Brett Whiteley in his studio? All that chat with and about Wendy Whiteley? Or Peter Gant? Those close examinations of Peter Gant’s ghastly collages?

I haven’t read Gabriella Coslovich’s book-length account of the two dubious Whiteley paintings and the men accused of making and selling them, so I came to the documentary with the barest knowledge of what happened: namely that Peter Gant and Aman Saddique were put on trial and convicted, only to have the decision overruled by a court of appeal. The rogues’ gallery of characters involved in buying and selling the works, from Gant to John Playfoot, to Steve Nateski, were all playing for the camera when interviewed. They deserve Logie nominations for these performances. The filmmakers, for their part, seemed content with quick soundbites and quotable quotes, as none of the interviewees appeared the least bit uncomfortable.

I’ve never been a Whiteley fan, always feeling that the things everyone else seems to adore most – his wristy line and flashy colour, are a big turn-off. The artist’s fabled “spontaneity” could be seen as a form of creative complacency, as he knew his reputation would ensure a healthy market for everything he produced. There’s also the problem that when an artist believes he’s a genius, in his own eyes he can do no wrong.

Nevertheless, it’s that very spontaneity which is missing from the two paintings that were nominated as fakes. Wendy says this in the documentary, and it’s the most incisive comment she makes.

What was most surprising about the trial, as portrayed in the documentary, was the contemptuous attitude shown by both lawyers and judge for what they called “connoisseurship”. The idea seemed to be that people giving their views as to why a painting was or was not a Whiteley, were mere poseurs whose comments lacked any hard basis in fact. As art appreciation is not a science, such comments will always have a subjective element, but it’s pure ignorance to imagine there is no value in these impressions. At least part of the problem must lie with the prosecution, who either failed to produce convincing, authoritative speakers, or didn’t prepare their witnesses properly.

The lawyers for the defence did the predictable thing when confronted with a case in which the evidence seemed damning: they cast doubt on the witnesses, threw up a smokescreen, ignored important points and spent an inordinate amount of time on trivial details and slip-ups. The idea was to throw all the ’expert’ commentary into doubt, and in this they largely succeeded.

One of the experts they smeared was Robyn Sloggett, of the University of Melbourne’s Art Conservation Lab, who they caught in a muddled statement about a bird on the canvas flying in one directon or another. Nothing coud be more pointless. Sloggett also indicated how poorly the bird was painted, which was quite unlike Whiteley, who took unusual care with such details, but this remark was apparently dismissed as airy-fairy “connoisseurship”.

The single blockbuster feature of Sloggett’s testimony was when she produced photographic evidence of the drawing beneath the painted surface of one of the paintings. These drawings were an exact match for those in the half-completed picture that had been secretly photographed by two of Aman Siddique’s colleagues in 2007. It was incontrovertible proof that the work in the studio and the work in court, which was sold as a Whiteley, were one-and the-same. It is impossible that Brett Whiteley, some time in the 1980s, could have drawn the same details on a picture that Aman Saddique would draw a decade later.

This was the gotcha! moment – the hard facts the court required. From this point on, everything else was an irrelevance, with support coming from Saddique’s purchase of a series of doors to paint on – echoing Whiteley’s preference; and the bill he paid for the gilded frames. These two details simply added to the one explosive revelation: the work in court was established beyond doubt to be the work photographed, half-completed, in Saddique’s studio.

I can’t understand how the defence was allowed to muddy the waters so effectively that this evidence was buried. I can’t understand why the prosecution didn’t make more of it, rather than let the trial drift on pointlessly. Finally, I can’t understand how the filmmakers failed to emphasise the importance of this point, instead of rambling on and on with all sorts of useless distractions.

When Peter Gant produced two late witnesses – his former gallery assistant and a photographer – who claimed to have seen the paintings in the late 1980s, the prosecution failed to cross-examine these suspicious witnesses and put their testimony under pressure. Next, we had the judge declaring this evidence was decisive, and inviting the jury to acquit the defendants there and then! What was he thinking? Why did the judge feel so convinced by this all-too-convenient testimony that he wrote a letter to the court of appeals recommending the jury verdict be overturned? – which it was.

Anyone watching this documentary could only come away with the most derisive view of the prosecution’s efforts, and questions about the judge’s willingness to leap to one-sided conclusions. The trial was a farce in which evidence that should have been more than sufficient to convict, was overturned by the flimsiest late testimony and the prosecution’s inability to counter the defence’s obfuscations.

One might speculate that the slackness of the prosecution and the contemptuous attitude of the judge reflect a more general Australian attitude towards the visual arts -that it’s an élite, rich man’s game. If some wealthy collector gets fooled or swindled, well who cares?

I shouldn’t need to reiterate that making and selling fake paintings is a crime, no less than breaking into someone’s house and stealing a million dollars in cash. It’s the role of the courts to decide whether a crime has been committed, and who is responsible. From the evidence submitted in this trial, the answer was obvious, and the jury duly declared the defendants guilty. In overturning the verdict, the court of appeal ignored the decisive evidence and took the previous judge’s word as gospel. The result is that the paintings remain in limbo, having not been declared fakes in court, but convincing no-one of their authenticity.

The so-called ‘Whiteley Art Scandal’ was a legal scandal, in which an open-and-shut case was completely mishandled. Peter Gant must have left the court and bought a lottery ticket right away. The ABC has made an appropriate monument to the process in a shapeless, drawn-out film that adds confusion to confusion.

This week’s art column looks at two exhibitions in Sydney – Fearless: Contemporary Indigenous Women in the Hassall Milson Collection, at the S.H. Ervin Gallery; and Parlour Parlëur, an installation by the ArtHitects (Gary Carsley & Renjie Teoh), at the Penrith Regional Gallery. The former features a spectacular group of works put together by private collectors. The latter is an elaborate project engineered by An Australian artist and a Singaporean architect, who seem to have covered every conceivable base.

The movie under review is The Exorcist: Believer – a late sequel to the classic horror flick of 1973. If the new film not as good as the original, director David Gordon Green has given it his best try. So many things that were novel and startling in 1973 have become horror movie clichés over the following five decades. In making a sequel, these devices simply can’t be avoided, as the fans are hanging out to see them again and again. Despite all the thrills, blood and vomit, I didn’t find this new Exorcist to be anywhere near as scary as The Whiteley Art Scandal.