A couple years ago, my wife had business in New York and I came along. One afternoon I walked over to MOMA to enjoy, among other things, the special exhibit on abstract expressionism. I walked through rooms of Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, and Newman, and also enjoyed seeing art by Warhol, Lichtenstein, and others. Still looking at paintings, but also momentarily disoriented with respect to the exit, I wandered through an opening into another room, turned the corner, and realized I was standing in front of “Christina’s World,” which I’d forgotten was located at MOMA. What a change from the expressionists! I’d seen the photos of this painting–which is about 3 feet by 4 feet—many times, of course.
Long before I started writing about “the sense of place,” I enjoyed Andrew Wyeth’s art. In the early 1980s I purchased Thomas Hoving’s Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth (Houghton Mifflin, 1978), in which Wyeth discusses with Hoving his Kuerner and Olsen paintings and his relationship with the two families. Interestingly, Wyeth commented that people wrote him about “Christina’s World,” saying that he expressed their own lives in the picture; and yet those people didn’t notice that Christina was disabled. At the time I lived in a very rural area and I appreciated Wyeth’s ability to artistically depict great, unspoken significance in natural scenery and everyday objects. Wyeth told about his unplanned moments of inspiration, as when his friend Karl Kuerner pulled some homemade sausage off meat hooks on the ceiling. Wyeth, noticing the ugly hooks, used them in the painting “Karl.”
When our local Borders store closed, my daughter and I sadly stopped by and took advantage of sales. (We had loved our Borders in Ohio, which closed several months ago.) I noticed Anne Classen Knutson’s Andrew Wyeth: Memory & Magic (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc, 2005) and purchased it. The book explained well the artistic and subconscious reasons why many of us love Wyeth’s art. In her essay “Andrew Wyeth’s Language of Things” (pp. 45-83), Knutson quotes the historian Wanda Corn that Wyeth’s paintings frequently feature windows, vessels, ajar doors, and womb-like spaces. “In general, the objects he paints fall into three categories: still lifes in nature, vessels, and thresholds” (p. 45). Knutson writes, “Many of the natural and domestic objects that Wyeth foregrounds in his paintings have long been used in western rituals of mourning and death. Flowers, trees, and other organic matter are traditional metaphors for death and the fragility of life, and the enduring properties of granite and other rock symbolize the persistence of memory… Vessels are often used in memorials as metaphors for memory storage, and thresholds suggest transformation, a concept often explored in images of mourning. When Wyeth is not representing the transience of life, he often tries to freeze time in his paintings, just as nineteenth century postmortem photographs were sometimes placed within the face of a stopped clock” (p. 47). His paintings also depict the ephemeral quality of life: the Olsen’s house in “Weatherside”, for instance, seemed to be dying and disappearing (p. 68).
Little wonder that Wyeth’s paintings are attractive and compelling to many of us because memory, death, mourning, and a consciousness of life’s impermanence are universal! Someone could do a phenomenology of Wyeth’s images and symbols via the philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s “poetics of space” and the way (if I recall Bachelard’s argument correctly) those images and symbols are ontologically prior to their expression.
Knutson comments that although Wyeth’s paintings seem realistic, “[h]is realism is magic realism, prompted by drams and imagination rather than observed reality” (p. 47). (The first essay is by Michael R. Taylor, “Between Realism and Surrealism: The Early Work of Andrew Wyeth”.) Interestingly, Wyeth’s paintings are often inspired by but do not depict powerful personal memories. For instance, the painting “Indian Summer”—a nude woman, seen from behind, who is looking into darkness—was inspired by a angel figurine that was a Christmas tree ornament (p. 47). “Winter, 1946,” a hill down which a boy runs awkwardly and uncertainly, has its background in the accidental death of Wyeth’s father, as does “Christina’s World” (pp. 58-59).
Like the latter two paintings, Wyeth often “merges” human figures with the landscape. But compared to some paintings, the Helga pictures are more consistently about vitality and rebirth rather than loss. My family and I visited the Helga exhibit at the Canton (Ohio) Museum of Art in 2004. In those drawings and paintings, Helga becomes a kind of embodiment of nature (Knutson, p. 61). But although as strong and “other” as a landscape—unlike Christina, Karl, and some others, Helga never makes eye contact with the viewer—her significance is not simply landscape. As David Kuspit puts it: in people like Christina Olson and also Wyeth’s African-American models, “[A]gain and again we see Wyeth looking for signs of ego strength in people in whom one doesn’t expect to find it. But Wyeth always takes a lingering, searching second glance, discovering strengths of character in everyday people–a self-respect oddly rooted in respect for the body, whatever its problems” (David Kuspit, “The Meaning of Helga,” Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures (exhibition book), Washington, DC: International Arts & Artists, 2004, p. 9).
Wyeth died in 2009. His obituary in the New York Times gives an interesting overview of his life and career: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/17/arts/design/17wyeth.html