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In this paper I will compare and contrast the work of two well-known and quite contrasting artists that

stand out in their approach towards the handling of the figure in their art. While searching for two artists
that would be not only interesting to compare and contrast, but in doing so, further my understanding of the
relationship between the artist and their attitude towards their artwork, I came across Brett Whiteley and
Albrecht Dürer. I was drawn to these artists because of their capacity to capture so clearly what they saw.
Their talents in approach and craftsmanship while so vastly different in some areas were closely related in

Both of these artists were exceptionally talented draftsmen and shared a keen sense of observation for
realistic detail. Dürer believed that, by using geometry and measurement, he could create a rational system
of perspective and bodily proportions, whereas, Whiteley, although having the ability to draw realistically,
was more concerned with abstraction, distortion and exaggeration to create emotion, especially when
portraying the human figure. Both Dürer and Whiteley's art demonstrates their extreme proficiency with
line and their ability to depict the human form in ways that many artists could only dream of.

Whiteley's use of line was equal to none, in that with just a few lines he could encapsulate the sensual,
feminine curves of a voluptuous female nude. He had a highly evolved instinct for making marks on
surfaces, he had the ability to change a dull, blank sheet of paper into an emotionally charged artwork with
a fluid like swipe of a paintbrush. Dürer's use of line on the other hand was quite different. The use of
millions of fine lines to render an image is typical of German renaissance engravers but Durers astonishing
and unequalled achievements in woodcut and engraving permanently changed the graphic arts and
heightened its possibilities. Through his two visits to Italy, and his contact with such brilliant renaissance
artists like his contemporaries Mantegna, Leonardo and Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516), Durer was
stimulated and influenced to develop his unique style.

While looking for two specific artworks to compare and contrast, I first found Durer's widely familiar work
'Hands of an Apostle' or 'The Praying Hands', which was finished down to the last detail. Above a network
of veins the somewhat thin but gnarled fingers point skywards and come to a 'point like a Gothic arch'. I
then came across Brett Whiteley's 'My God, My God…Why…' which depicts Christ on the
crucifix with his arms and his largely out of proportion hands held sky ward. The hands are cartoon-like
and are grotesquely distorted becoming a strong image of intense of pain, so much so that the rest of the
painting becomes seemingly insignificant. Whiteley used his ability to distort an image to intensify the
feeling of the picture to its full extent but he also knew he could rely on his tremendous skill as a
draughtsman to rescue him if he took it too far. Durer however, made constant attempts to find a general
proportional law that held constant with all varieties of human physique. He diagrammed the proportions of
different parts of the body according to a fixed scale. It is understood that the hands were a section of a
larger work and that Durers capacity for scale meant that each part could be placed like a jigsaw and be
accurately in proportion. He collected his thoughts on human proportion into four volumes of books called
Treatise on Human Proportions. He only completed two before his death in1528.

Whiteley's paintings most of the time, were quite highly sexualised, in fact, Whiteley was the first
Australian artist to directly portray sex in art. I think Durer would be quite disgusted with Whiteley's blunt
theme, but Whiteley was more intrigued with the manner not the subject matter of the artwork. Whiteley
seemed to have a cool sentimental detachment with the themes in his paintings. For instance, in his work
Head of Christie which is a portrait of an English murderer, instead of concentrating on directly painting a
picture of death and despair to repulse the viewer, he simply uses a subtle form of composition and
distortion of the face to entice the viewer to look at the face of a murderer. He aims not to shock or repulse
but to intrigue. It's interesting in that Whiteley's pictures of nudes, giraffes and monkeys seem to have the
same emotional level as The Head of Christie. Durer on the other hand chose his theme quite carefully. His
main themes were usually spiritual or religious, although he like Whiteley, also had a keen eye for
landscapes and some sort of connection with animals. Almost all of Durer's paintings or etchings of animals
or landscapes were so detailed that they could perhaps be accurate enough for a botanist or biologist to use
today. I think, Durer's connection with animals sometimes led him to mix his themes, as in his Virgin with a
Multitude of Animals, 1503, where he surrounds the Virgin with a gathering of gentle animals including a
parrot, a fox, a poodle, some owls and a crab.

One of Durer's favourite themes however, was himself. His self-portraits were all precisely finished and all
portrayed him as a handsome young man. He completed four self-portraits during his life the first of which
when he was only thirteen. It is an amazingly accomplished self-portrait and was not only his earliest
known work but is also the first recognised self-portrait in German art. The last self-portrait he painted was
at the age of 29 in 1500, where he deliberately portrayed himself in the style of a painting of Christ. He
idealised his own features to resemble that of Christ, not to show himself as the reincarnation of Jesus,
which to a good Christian would be blasphemous, but he believed that his gift of art was god given.
Although Durer often painted self-portraits he hardly ever painted his wife, and when he did they weren't
that flattering. Whiteley nevertheless, used his girlfriend as a constant theme in his art. He painted her not
to show her in a sense but to show the female form.

Two widely different personalities in two vastly different eras, the fifteenth Century and the twentieth
Century have shown me how the quality of draughtsmanship and line can have such a strong impact on the
viewer of the figure. Whilst Durer struggled in the changing time of the German Gothic era to the
beginning of the wonderfully flamboyant Italian Renaissance, Whitely was also an artist of a changing era.
His paintings especially the abstracted figure encapsulated the sexual revolution of the sixties and enriched
the Australian art tradition. They both were drawn to the human and animal form and while Durer
embraced realism in the time where developing science was the changing the way the world saw itself,
Whiteley was seeking the abstract when science was being questioned, and the search for more inner truths
was a sign of the times. Their construction of the figure displays all these concepts.


GAUNT, William, "Everyman's Dictionary of Pictorial Art",Vol 1. 1962. K.M Dent and Sons. London

GLEESON James (ed) 'Masterpieces of Australian Painting',1969. Landsdowne Press Melbourne

HORTON, M. "Australian Painters of the '70's", 1975 Ure Smith Press, Sydney

HUGHES, Robert, "The Art of Australia" 1966 Penguin Aus.

RUSSELL Francis, "The World Of Durer c. 1471-1528" 1967 Time Life Inc. NY.