Brett Whiteley and Martin Sharp

Homage to Van Gogh...

Martin Sharp King of the Ring

Before there was Marlon Brando or Elvis Presley, there was Vincent Van Gogh. To the war baby generation of Sydney artists, the first encounter with bohemian excess, derailed passion and probably beards and corduroy pants was embodied by Kirk Douglas in “Lust for Life” (1956). Afterwards came sex and drugs and pop art, but to the teenaged eyes of Martin Sharp and Brett Whiteley, Vincent was the first freewheeler, the first outsider, and possibly the first inkling that art could be a pathway into counterculture.

The beauty of an auction is that it frames art history by chance rather than calculation. A curator could not have chosen a steeper contrast than two images of Van Gogh by two of Australia’s most idiosyncratic figurative artists: here is Vincent in existential shadow and cartoon brilliance.

In the work of Brett Whiteley, Van Gogh was a frequent extension of self, and exaggerated the metaphor by creating self portraits that were both mirrors of the Dutch original and shards of his own memoir ladened symbolism. Whiteley recalled the first encounter with Van Gogh in an art book he picked up at the age of sixteen. The effect was nothing short of hearing Dylan go electric:

It completely changed my way of seeing. The immediate effect was a heightening of reality in that everything I looked at took on an intensity.

Brett Whiteley

Even this recollection seems like an understatement when you look at the reverberating lines carved around Vincent’s face in the Whiteley etching “Self Portrait, One of a Dozen Glimpses, 1983 (from Another Way of Looking at Vincent Van Gogh 1888 - 1889). In this small intricate work dwells the kernel of so many of his major paintings, drawings and a mindset that began the 50s and stretched way into the 80s, a lifetime in fact of one painter looking at another, with respect and experimental verve.

For Martin Sharp, Vincent Van Gogh was the invisible patron of his art collective “The Yellow House” and the muse for many radically witty and very much yellow paintings. The work (in Shapiro's upcoming auction), “King of the Ring” pre-dates the famous “Still Life” of Marilyn surrounded by sunflowers by three years, and may have been commenced in London and completed in Sydney.

Sharp was infamous within his lifetime for keeping major paintings and re-working their surfaces over decades. Yet this work, painted on plastic has an almost opaque appearance due to the fact that it was not graced by decades of fidgety meditation. It’s also a visual ode to joy. The angst of Vincent as victim is reversed and here he is presented instead as “King of the Ring”, a rebel with cultural muscle shattering convention with neon bravado. Day glow colour was a feature of the famous Disreali Gears album cover and a material clearly still holding some allure for the artist in 1970.

This work, having been in a private collection for almost 40 years is a rare discovery and a revelation in the diversity and graphic confidence of Martin Sharp’s early work in the “Yellow House” period. Hollywood, fine art, comic strips and theatrics blend in a seamless whole here and there is another thread to link the work back to Kirk Douglas. Perhaps. The painting was given to the “hard man” Australian actor Bill Hunter as a gift by the artist. Did the actor remind the artist of Vincent or Vincent playing a boxer in a movie version made real by this painting?

Both works (Lot 59; Lot 125) will be included in Shapiro's forthcoming auction on Monday 8 December 2014 from 6pm in Sydney.

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