A first: Brett Whiteley's 1968 painting Paul Gauguin on the Eve of His Attempted Suicide, Tahiti. Photo: Jason South
An arsenic bottle sits in the top right-hand corner of the big, bright yellow Brett Whiteley painting, suspended in the middle of a whimsical swoop of the canvas that juts out almost like an enlarged piece of punctuation.
It, along with raised bumps representing juicy mangoes and a portrait of French painter Gauguin encased in glass, is one of many avant-garde touches in the 1.5 metre by 2.6 metre work that was produced by Whiteley when the Australian artist lived in the counter-cultural heart of New York: the Hotel Chelsea.
Whiteley arrived there in late 1967, just before Leonard Cohen wrote his famous song about the Chelsea. It was a creative hub that attracted some of the world’s biggest and brightest stars, from artist Mark Rothko to singer Bob Dylan and Irish poet Brendan Behan.
Just as Rothko had done before him, Whiteley handed over a painting to the then manager of the Chelsea, Stanley Bard, as part-payment for rent.
That painting, Paul Gauguin on the Eve of His Attempted Suicide, Tahiti, has been shown in public only once, during an exhibition in New York’s Marlborough Gallery in 1968. Like many other works produced by Whiteley during his time in New York, it never left the US. His other works painted at the Chelsea include two portraits of Dylan (one of which is missing).
Now Gauguin has landed on Australian soil for the first time after being auctioned by the Chelsea 23rd Street Corporation, the former owner of the Chelsea, in New York last month – and will be offered for sale in Melbourne in July.
Menzies Art Brands bought the painting for $1.1 million, including buyer’s premium, at a Sotheby’s contemporary art auction on May 14.
Menzies executive chairman Rod Menzies bid on the work over the phone from Shanghai at 4am, against a ‘‘very determined opponent’’, to secure the painting.
Mr Menzies said he expected it to sell here for up to $2.2 million, with the newness of the work to Australian audiences, the piece’s massive scale and its provenance adding to its value.
His auction house set a record for a Whiteley in October with the sale of My Armchair for $3.9 million.
‘‘It’s in very good condition,’’ Mr Menzies said of Gauguin, as he unveiled the piece at Stonington Mansion for Fairfax Media this week. ‘‘It’s entirely fresh to the market.’’
The painting will be auctioned in Melbourne on July 24, following viewings in Sydney and Melbourne next month.
Associate Professor Ken Wach, research fellow and head of the School of Creative Arts at the University of Melbourne, rates Gauguin as one of Whiteley’s best works, from one of the most under-rated – and tumultuous – periods of his career.
‘‘It’s one of his best,’’ says Wach, who writes about the painting in the catalogue for its sale. ‘‘That period is totally under-acknowleged ... all the scholars are quiet about the period because of the tumult at the hotel.
‘‘It was like an inferno. It came at such a central point in his life. Because it was a dark period in his life, there’s very little known about it ...
‘‘I think it was a crucial turning point. It was the middle of his life’’ – Whiteley died in 1992, aged 53, of a heroin overdose – ‘‘[although] he didn’t know it was. It was an attempt at internationalism. It’s a great painting.’’
The arsenic bottle referenced a botched suicide attempt by Gauguin, the post-impressionist painter who spent the latter part of his life in Tahitiand tried to kill himself by ingesting arsenic.
‘‘The arsenic bottle up there [signifies] the futile battle of life,’’ Wach said. ‘‘Gauguin tried to suicide, [but] the body vomited it up. That for Whiteley would have been a kind of artistic message, that suicide is not the answer.’’
Wendy Whiteley, who was married to Brett for 27 years (they divorced three years before his death), said they sailed to the US from London on the QE1 in late 1967 and ‘‘went straight to the Chelsea’’.
She confirmed Whiteley had handed the Gauguin painting over to Bard as part payment of rent on the townhouse, which cost more than they could afford at the time.
‘‘This particular one was part rent for the Chelsea penthouse, as it was laughingly called. It was really a room and a half, on the roof. But it had a nice garden, which was pretty spectacular for New York.’’
Some of the work created by her husband during that time was now lost, she said. ‘‘A few he destroyed, from this particular exhibition before he left,’’ she said, explaining how they fled New York for Fiji in 1969.
‘‘Brett, he kind of had a bit of a nervous breakdown in New York ... he decided he wanted to return to paradise.’’
And the Dylan portrait?
‘‘Unfortunately that painting has disappeared in New York. It just disappeared after Brett left, and then I left not long after, leaving a bit of a mess, really, thinking that would just be looked after, but it disappeared.’’
She’s happy that the Gauguin, however, has resurfaced.
‘‘I was very tempted to buy this myself," she said of the painting’s auction last month. ‘‘I knew it was coming up, Sotheby’s was in touch.
‘‘It’s a kind of bonus that it’s back. I’m glad it’s in Australia. I think anything new is more interesting (to buyers).
‘‘It is a major Whiteley and he’s still popular. That period is very much loved by specific people. I hope it goes to a good home.’’
And what, pray tell, is in that arsenic bottle?
‘‘Nothing of any consequence ... a bit of Ajax or Gumption or something, something harmless anyway, obviously.’’