Whiteley's New York saga brought home to roost

Author: Richard Brewster | Posted: 18th July, 2014

Menzies latest auction of Australian and international fine art and sculpture is not for the faint hearted – with many of the major offerings carrying six-figure estimates.

The sale, from 6.30pm Thursday July 24 at 1 Darling Street South Yarra, contains 150 lots (some with estimates as low as $2000 to cater for first time buyers) – but it is the larger works that are attracting most of the collector interest.

Leading the charge is Brett Whiteley’s Gauguin (also known as Portrait of Paul Gauguin on the Eve of his Attempted Suicide, Tahiti 1968), a large and uniquely shaped work acquired the following year from the artist and until recently hung in the Chelsea Hotel in New York.

Situated in Soho and well known for decades as a haven for artists, actors, musicians, authors and playwrights, the hotel changed hands earlier this year and the new owners are keen to refurbish the building and turn it into a more genteel establishment.

Whiteley’s painting was apparently hanging behind the reception desk but was sold by Sotheby’s New York in its Contemporary Art Day Auction on May 15. While Menzies staff will not admit that its executive chairman Rod Menzies was the successful bidder, they are keen to let everyone know that the work has never before been seen in Australia.

The Chelsea Hotel was a cultural magnet and attracted many of the leading artists and musicians of the 1960s – such as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, Jackson Pollock, Dylan Thomas – and, of course, Whiteley.

According to art experts, Whiteley was infused with an almost messianic fervour at this time and embarked upon a small number of highly dramatic paintings, compressed within a two-year period, which represented a forceful departure from the style of his earlier London-based works.

Gauguin is one of the best of these rare and intense New York paintings and was painted after Whiteley admired his works and read about the unfortunate life of the French artist.

The Menzies auction contains some of the finest works by Australian traditional, modern and contemporary artists such as Frederick McCubbin, Tom Roberts, John Brack, Jeffrey Smart, Grace Cossington Smith, Norman Lindsay and Rick Amor.

However, there also is an unusual painting River Estuary with Farm Labourers by Russian artist Konstantin Yakovlevich Kryzhitsky (1858-1911), which the late owner purchased at the time of the 1917 Russian Revolution as she was leaving the country.

Because Kryzhitsky attracts big money in Russia, Menzies expects a lot of interest from Russian collectors keen to acquire a fresh work.

Viewing 11am-6pm Friday until Wednesday (Sunday from 1pm) Stonington Mansion, 336 Glenferrie Road, Malvern.

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