I wrote this piece as a first step towards mapping what I thought might be a distinctive characteristic of Australian art (and perhaps colonial art in general); a preoccupation, shared by artists and audience alike, with what kind of artist Australia needed. At the same time, I wanted to demonstrate that iconic art works weren’t being looked at very carefully … hence my attention to the details embedded in some of the works. It’s as if iconic art works are simply recognized rather than looked at.
On 15 July 1953, John Reginald Halliday Christie was executed for the murder of his wife, Ethel; one in a series of at least six murders, described as the most sordid in British trial history. 1 In October 1965, Brett Whiteley exhibited eighteen works depicting Christie, his crimes and victims in a London art gallery; images hailed for their unflinching confrontation of evil. The crimes generated two, seemingly opposite, orders of notoriety: Christie, the criminal sociopath, and Whiteley, the artistic genius. Transgression brought both punishment and reward.
Delving into what he called the dungheap of the Christie murders, Whiteley sought a subject that would signal his transition from youthful prodigy to mature master. The unabashed ambition of the series raises suspicions of self-seeking premeditation but contemporary critical consensus endorsed Whiteley’s project: sexual dysfunction, rape, and murder were a prelude to the legitimate task of contemplating evil and its effects. All the same, questions of good and evil were a pretext for the standing of the Australian artist in the mid-1960s. The Christie series allowed Whiteley to present a raft of proposals regarding his status and that of his craft: the ability of art to address the world’s evil; the equivalence between the artist and the criminal outsider; the cultural position of an Australian artist in London; and the relationships between art and the mass media, romanticism and empiricism, the aesthetic and the forensic gaze.
Christie’s crimes began in 1920, with a conviction for theft, and continued through the decade, with convictions for stealing and assault. His murders commenced with the strangulation of Ruth Fuerst in August 1943, and Muriel Eady in October 1944; both of whose bodies he buried in the garden of his home at 10 Rillington Place, Notting Hill. These crimes remained undiscovered for ten years, and Christie was never tried for them. Christie’s first appearance in a murder trial was as a witness for the prosecution: his upstairs neighbor, Timothy Evans, was charged with the murders of his wife and infant daughter, whose bodies were found in the washhouse of the property in December 1949. Suspicion fell upon Christie during the trial, but Evans had confessed, and was hanged in March 1950.
The murders for which Christie became infamous took place between December 1952 and March 1953, commencing with his wife, followed by three prostitutes, Rita Nelson, Kathleen Maloney, and Hectorina MacLennan. The latter were gassed, using a jerry-rigged canopy in Christie’s kitchen, which he passed off as a therapeutic inhalant system. Death was by strangulation, with sexual penetration occurring close to the time of death. The bodies of the prostitutes were concealed behind a false wall in the kitchen, that of Mrs. Christie under the floorboards of the lounge. In March 1954, Christie having abandoned the house, another tenant found the well-preserved bodies in the kitchen. Further searches, and extensive forensic examination resulted in the discovery and identification of all remaining victims.
Christie was apprehended that March, and tried in June. The possibility of his having committed the crimes for which Evans was executed arose; Christie confessed to the killing of Mrs. Evans, then recanted. An inquiry upheld the finding of the Evans trial, but did not dispel suspicion that an innocent man might have been hanged.
What is striking in all of this is both the deferral of justice and the rapidity with which it was finally meted out. Christie’s first murders went undetected for ten years, and he was never tried for them. On the other hand, he eventually spent a mere three days in court, charged with the murder of his wife, was found guilty after one hour and twenty minutes of jury deliberation, and executed twenty days later.
On the face of it, Whiteley’s motivation for painting the Christie series seems straightforward enough. Painting the crimes entailed the artist acknowledging and picturing evil, as a prelude to its transcendence. Christie could be used to quantify an abstract concept: ‘I wanted to try and define evil’, said Whiteley, ‘to put my finger on some point of evil and say that’s it’. There was something almost therapeutic in being able to give evil a name, as Whiteley later suggested; ‘I wanted to take something as bad as the human condition could get … something filthy, repugnant, at the very bottom of the scale … and try to purge it.’ 2 The incorporation of evil into painting might glean some broader, even metaphysical, sense of the tragedy of the human condition. This ambition, inaugurated in the Christie series, was one Whiteley pursued in later images of Hitler, New York, Van Gogh, Vietnam, even Sydney’s polluted beaches.
But this suggestion that art would identify evil, only to leave it behind, is too simple. Whiteley continually returned to evil in the series, repeatedly establishing equivalences between art and evil, the artist and the murderer. It was this entrenching of his art in the murders that allowed him to establish its status, and his own.
Christie was measurably evil. His tally of victims ranked as the highest in Britain to that point; enumeration was a rhetorical ploy common to all accounts of his crimes. Propelled by forensic science, the investigation into the murders mapped, measured and documented Christie’s home and the disposition of his victims. Photographs were taken, diagrams drawn, skeletal remains unearthed, colour coded, charted and reassembled. Caught up in this empiricism, Whiteley became so concerned to convey the facts of the crimes that colleagues feared his art would collapse into journalism. Extensive research into the crimes was undertaken. Whiteley consulted published sources, spoke to authorities on the murderers, visited Madame Tussaud’s reconstruction of the crime scene, even going so far as to break into 10 Rillington Place itself. His paintings and drawings were littered with photographs, diagrammatic annotations and extensive explanatory texts. In this regard, Whiteley suggested that the job of art was to identify the world and its experiences, ‘to show life in its completeness’, as he put it. 3 Part of this completeness entailed returning art to a direct confrontation with death, a task increasingly evaded by the mid-twentieth century as art mirrored a passage away from a direct, domestic engagement with death in favour of one mediated, and abstracted, by science and medical technologies. 4
Dwelling on the charnel house of Rillington Place, Whiteley would bring death home, would picture the home as the very locus of death. The truth, and relevance, of art would be established in its ability to grasp the facts of the world, before reflecting on their metaphysical significance. A noble purpose, but one that would also establish Whiteley’s own significance. Identifying Christie’s crimes in their specificity would also identify Whiteley as the right kind of Australian artist for the mid-sixties. He would demonstrate his ability to speak critically to the English of their own culture, to speak against the glibness of Pop art (recently subject to critical fanfare in London), and against the mythological nostalgia of Nolan (whom he had publicly accused of ‘blocking the public’s acceptance of real Australian artists’ 5).
The thorough investigation, and detailed representation of evil would identify Whiteley as a real Australian artist. But it would also identify him as legitimate heir to the outsider tradition in western art. One clear impetus to tackle the Christie murders was Whiteley’s reading of the work of Colin Wilson. It was not so much Wilson the reporter on crime as Wilson the populariser of existentialism that appealed to him.
Wilson’s The outsider, published in 1956 to great acclaim, was a veritable compendium of bohemian positions; the nihilist, the anarchist, the madman, the visionary, the criminal … and the artist. There can be no doubt that Whiteley would have found much to interest him there. By all accounts, he had already acted out many of the tropes himself; rebellious schoolboy, runaway, and bohemian. And it was Vincent van Gogh, Wilson’s paradigm of the artist-outsider, who had inspired Whiteley to paint as a youth, and would continue to be the touchstone in his adult career. Whiteley may also have felt an affinity with Wilson, who, at the age of 24 awoke one morning to find himself hailed as a genius and celebrity, an experience similar to Whiteley’s own early fame. Enacting the role of the outsider affirmed Whiteley’s status as an artist in general, and potentially as the embodiment of the Australian artist, for Wilson’s outsider had been proposed as characteristic of Australian literature in its entirety. 6
Wilson’s amalgam of Sartre, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Nijinsky and Van Gogh pointed the way to Christie. The outsider, Wilson argued, confronted the ‘darkness and dirt’ of the world. Chaos would be confronted, after which art would restore order and logic, allowing the recognition that existence was ‘a vast web of cruelty’. At the same time, the outsider grappled with challenges to self-expression, whether the social limits restricting it or the personal failings hampering it. The outsider also had to negotiate the conflicting demands of the emotions and intellectual discipline.
Whiteley embodied all of these qualities; the hyperkinetic hepcat, the undisciplined rake, the diligent sketcher, the painter struggling with the reportorial and expressive impulses. Wilson’s catalogue of the outsider’s options can be mapped onto Whiteley’s two major London programs; the bath images of 1963–64 and the Christie series that followed. Here, in the parallel of life and death, we find what Wilson dubbed ‘intellectual Outsider’s concern with “being and nothingness”’. And in the contrast of sensual and forensic interest is the ‘emotional’ outsider’s struggle with ‘eternal love or eternal indifference’. Finally, in the distinction between Wendy Whiteley’s fully rounded form and the shrivelled victims of Rillington Place, we find the opposition confronted by the ‘physical’ outsider; the triumph of the body meeting the ‘ultimate horror of physical corruption’.
One final, crucial feature of the outsider becomes evident in the Christie series. For Wilson, the criminal held a fascination for the outsider; both distanced themselves from bourgeois society, whether as sinner and saint. Consciously and unconsciously, Whiteley established an equivalence between himself and Christie. Both, obviously, were outsiders. Christie, the criminal, pleaded guilty on the grounds of insanity. Whiteley, the artist, impressed acquaintances in London as certifiable and an obsessive lunatic. 7 Such observations can be dismissed as one more version of the genius-madman trope. But Whiteley planted visual cues in his images connecting himself with Christie. The bulldog clip features prominently in several of the Christie images; it was the device that Christie used to regulate the flow of gas to his victims. It is also prominent in Whiteley’s images of his own practice; it is the device that holds down the sheet of paper onto which he transcribes the image of a posed nude. The murder and the artist at work; both pinning down women. Several of the bathroom series drawings, made after Whiteley had first considered Christie as a potential subject, depict the model folded and contorted in poses later echoed in the Christie works. And in his later erotic drawings, Whiteley tackles a hunched and folded women from behind, echoing Christie’s necrophiliac presence in the earlier paintings.
The work of the murderer might be seen as the obverse of an artist’s labors. One takes life as the other brings to life. One generates suffering while the other seeks to resolve it. And yet there, in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors, was a waxwork tableau of the murderer at work. There, in his kitchen, stood Christie papering over the cupboard within which he had stashed three bodies. In that shallow niche, forms were arranged, concealed behind a flat surface, a macabre equivalent to the space of the artist’s canvas. And there was Christie, wielding not a weapon (the necktie), not a mechanism of torture (the gas pipe) but a paint brush. A portrait of the murderer as an artist; a vignette photographed by Whiteley and transposed through silkscreen into a print,10 Rillington Place W11.
The Christie series, then, would take on a succession of big issues—evil, murder, and the identity of the artist—and would, in the process, establish Whiteley’s own significance. To tackle a subject as substantial as contemporary evil was to make a claim to seriousness; a seriousness distinct from the sensuality of Whiteley’s earlier nudes and abstracts. The very fact that the images were produced and exhibited as a series underlined such an ambition; here, it was implied, was an artist with a programme, working on an oeuvre. To build art on the body of a woman was nothing new. The motif of the dead woman was, as Elisabeth Bronfen has suggested, a staple of Romantic art. Death was acknowledged and made visible, but repressed as someone else’s passing. 8 But to insist upon the murder of a woman as real and recent, to assert its presence in both painterly gesture and technical detail, was to demand attention as a commentator on the contemporary rather than to fabricate for the present another mechanism of disavowal.
And yet, I think, Whiteley was too confident in his assumption that the reality of murder might be pictured. In her study of physical suffering, Elaine Scarry suggests that a gulf exists between the one who experiences pain, and the observer who does not. The one who suffers is in no doubt as to the presence of pain, it is viscerally felt. The observer, on the other hand, cannot see pain, or reads only its inarticulate symptoms, prelinguistic moans, or unsystematic writhing; ‘Thus pain comes unshakably into our midst as at once that which cannot be denied and that which cannot be confirmed’.9 This is analogous to Whiteley’s problem in establishing the presence of evil. The empirical, forensic aspects of Christie’s crime—which Whiteley so insisted upon—are, as Scarry would say of pain, ‘incontestably and unnegotiably present’. But these are, so to speak, the traces of evil; the problem of evil’s presence in appearance remains; What would evil itself look like? How would you make a picture of it? The conundrum is hinted at in references to Christie’s unremarkable demeanour; evil is latent, an invisible quality concealed by a superficial normalcy.
Having named the problem of pain—its unrepresentable presence—Scarry also suggests a typical way around it, one which Whiteley seems to have apprehended. Psychological suffering, she notes, is representable, to the extent that it is a staple of the arts. Equally, torture, as the narrative of the production of pain, is picturable. Here, Scarry cites the example of Francis Bacon, whose gnarled, excoriated bodies provided the model for Whiteley. So Whiteley’s solution to the problem of pain was, first, to narrativise it. Hence the insistence on journalistic detail, on a carefully specified cast of characters, on the series as a sequence of events. And second, to render the crimes in terms of entrapment, torture and suffering. The shallow picture space, the embedding of bodies on the chair, their stark graphic framing; all spoke of imprisonment and distress (an effect heightened by the exhibition of pictures of caged animals from the London Zoo series at the same time).
Where all these equivalences might come together—the formal, narrative, sexual parallelisms between Christie and Whiteley—is again suggested by Scarry. Pain and imagination, she argues, are equivalent in their anomaly; ‘pain is a state remarkable for being wholly without objects, the imagination is … the only state that is wholly its objects’. 10 Pain and imagining, murder and art, Christie and Whiteley, meet as the ‘“framing events” within whose boundaries all other perceptual, somatic and emotional events occur, thus, between the two extremes can be mapped the whole terrain of the human psyche’. 11 Here is the extensiveness of practice that Whiteley sought; ‘I think Christie became important for me because he could no more control his madness than the world can control its energies. I feel afraid on all levels, from Christie to the White House—on what wavelength are they working?’ 12 And here, also, is the identity of the artist, for, Scarry suggests, the terrain between pain and imagination is the field negotiated by ‘man-as-creator’. 13 Imagination propels those acts of making that bring forth form into the world; pain, having no object, withdraws from the world into unknowable interiority. The centrifugal and the centripetal, the visible and the invisible, the formed and the formless, these are the poles between which the artists must move. These are the poles marked by the comprehensibility and incomprehensibility of the events of 10 Rillington Place.
Here, Whiteley’s fascination with the specific details of Christie’s murders takes on another cast. Their actuality allowed him to articulate his relationship with London as an expatriate colonial artist. The documentary quality of the images is evident in the minutiae of Christie’s lethal apparatus; the rope-laced deck chair, the rubber hose, the bulldog clips, the jar of balsam are all there. In one painting, components are labeled, in another arrows show the direction of gas flow. In Whiteley’s portrait of Christie, the murderer’s clothing matches the description issued by police. And on a drawing of the corpses found in the kitchen cupboard, Whiteley wrote that the bodies had been found ‘in this exact position’.
But forensic detail was only one component of Whiteley’s realism. He also claimed to have immersed himself in Christie’s milieu. Whiteley lived nearby Rillington Place, and drank at a pub frequented by the murderer, speaking to locals whose memories of him were still fresh. For Whiteley, such experiences were, as well as being research into the Christie case, a means of establishing his sense of London’s identity. In the mid-sixties, Ladbroke Grove was an appropriate home for an artist with Wilsonian ambitions. The area mixed rich and poor, black and white, and had figured in such recent upheavals as the Notting Hill race riots of 1958 and the Profumo scandal of 1963. But Whiteley seemed more concerned to contrive a Dickensian patina for the neighborhood. With some exaggeration, he dubbed Christie’s home a slum, while the locals became a cast of geezers, pimps and prostitutes. London was all decay and squalor; if the Christie murders represented the existential dungheap, the London itself was a literal one. In making art out of one of London’s recent nightmares, Whiteley wanted to cast the decrepitude of the Mother Country against his own antipodean virility (just as the sexual dysfunction of ‘Can’t-make-it’ Christie was the inverse of the artist’s potency). The gesture was recognised as such at the time, one English critic astutely noting that Whiteley was ‘following the classic Australian practice of seeing how great, and how macabre, a hash of life Europeans can make’. 14
Making art out of London went hand in hand with making it in London. Already noted as one of the London art scene’s rising stars in 1964, Whiteley pitted himself against its kingpin, Francis Bacon, with the Christie series. His corpses would be more visceral, more immediate than Bacon’s. Equally, Whiteley contested the prominence of other Australian artists in London; Charles Blackman had exhibited schoolgirl paintings there just months before his show, and Nolan continued to peddle outback visions divorced from the realities of urban, expatriate existence. The Christie series is symptomatic of a double tactic that Whiteley exercised, with limited success, for much of his career. The subject matter would attract attention; it was not a stunt, but it certainly sought the status of an event. The art would be inseparable from the notoriety of its subject and the celebrity of its creator; the two would mutually define each other. And yet, in its notoriety, the series would present serious-minded, heartfelt social commentary, in contrast with the apparent quietism and indifference of pop art. Whiteley would be, simultaneously, the conscience of a media culture, and a symptom of its effects.
What I think is most striking about Whiteley, is his acute consciousness, from the very outset, of the need to be not just an artist, but the right kind of artist. His affinity with the Wilsonian outsider is one sign of this, as were his deliberate challenges to Bonnard (in the bath series), and to Bacon, Nolan and Jasper Johns (in the Christie series). A less overt, but extremely telling, symptom can be found in a collage of 1961, To reach a point of cubelessism, exhibited at his first solo show in London. This is the work of a young artist who, as its title suggests, sought to shuck off the burden of the received European tradition. But embedded in its surface is an anxiety about the legitimacy of his art. One collage element is a fragment of an article discussing the manipulation of youth by advertising, an industry in which Whiteley had worked until his departure from Australia. Another comes from a psychological study examining the effects on young boys of viewing the female nude. Here are the two poles of Whiteley’s engagement with visual culture, advertising and art. Both manipulate the viewer, one illegitimately, the other legitimately. Both traffic in desire, one exploiting it, the other rendering it edifying. A choice between inauthentic and authentic picturing had to be made. Whiteley made his; art and the nude. The Christie series is one more, brutal, affirmation of that career decision. Whiteley would be an artist, an Australian artist, an Australian artist in London. No, the Australian artist in London.
Original publication: ‘Snuff art: Brett Whiteley’s Christie series’, Meanjin, 4, 1999, pp 166–177.
- F. Tennyson Jesse (ed.), Trials of Timothy John Evans and John Reginald Halliday Christie, William Hodge and Co., London, 1957, p i. ↩
- Sandra McGrath, Brett Whiteley, Bay Books, Sydney, 1979, p 58. ↩
- Sandra McGrath, Brett Whiteley, p 54. ↩
- See Alan Warren Friedman, Fictional death and the modernist enterprise, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995. ↩
- Margot Hilton and Graeme Blundell, Whiteley: an unauthorised life, Macmillan, Sydney, 1996, p. 45. My emphasis. ↩
- Donovan Clarke, ‘The image of Australian man’, Australian Quarterly, vol 37, no 2, June 1965, pp 67–78. ↩
- Hilton and Blundell, Whiteley, pp 54, 59. ↩
- Elisabeth Bronfen, Over her dead body: death, femininity and the aesthetic, Routledge, New York, 1992. ↩
- Elaine Scarry, The body in pain: the making and unmaking of the world, Oxford University Press, New York, 1985, p. 4. ↩
- Scarry, The body in pain, p 162. ↩
- Scarry, The body in pain, p 165. ↩
- Robert Hughes, ‘The Shirley Temple of Australian Art?’, The Bulletin, 18 December 1965, p. 41. ↩
- Scarry, The body in pain, p. 169. ↩
- John Russell, ‘Brain, Brawn and Blood’, Sunday Times, 17 October 1965, p 5. ↩