Andrew Wyeth was the first real artist I found for myself. I had Michaelangelo, DaVinci, Rafael, and the like thrust on me either at school or at home (my father disliked art but thought a “rounded education” meant I ought at least to be able to recognize a renowned masterpiece when I saw one) but Wyeth I found for myself when an English teacher made a passing reference to “Christina’s World” as a painting done by an artist who lived part of the year in Maine. I lived in New Hampshire, as un- if not anti-artistic a state as exists. Mississippi thinks more of artists than New Hampshire and Maine where they were considered flakes, bums, drug addicts, and wastrels dodging a decent day’s work. The idea that one of these despised ones had actually chosen to live surrounded by the people who despised him was fascinating. I went to the local library and looked him up.
There was a full-color, two-page repro of “Christina’s World” in an art book and I spread it in front of me on the empty library table and stared at it for a long time. I think I must have been expecting a Norman Rockwell-ish sentimentality but there was nothing sentimental about Christina. A cripple, she made her way around her run-down farm and dilapidated house by pulling herself along with her hands, her useless legs dragging behind her.
She was 55 at the time, an aging recluse who stubbornly refused any kind of aid, glorying in her pain and privation as if it somehow proved her worth. The picture Wyeth painted was generally considered to show her courage, determination, and independence. It doesn’t really, at least it doesn’t show those things any more than it shows her overweaning pride, her satisfaction in playing victim, or her vicious puritanical streak. All it shows is, as the picture title says, her world – as much of her hardscrabble farm as her strong if scrawny arms could get her across and then back to her house again in a single day.
It is – and was then – an extraordinary picture to me precisely because it looked unflinchingly at Christine yet made no judgments about her or her world except for the most important one: how limited they were. Christine’s world was the world of her farm, a world to which she was content to be chained, modern contrivances like wheelchairs be damned. It is the bleak, restricted world of people who live bleak and restricted lives and don’t see any point to changing them. Many assumed Wyeth admired them, but if so why aren’t they fleshed out, their joys lit next door to their fears, their hopes as much a part of the picture as their despair?
Mark Kimmelman gives the standard view of Wyeth in the NYT obit.
Wyeth gave America a prim and flinty view of Puritan rectitude, starchily sentimental, through parched gray and brown pictures of spooky frame houses, desiccated fields, deserted beaches, circling buzzards and craggy-faced New Englanders. A virtual Rorschach test for American culture during the better part of the last century, Wyeth split public opinion as vigorously as, and probably even more so than, any other American painter including the other modern Andy, Warhol, whose milieu was as urban as Wyeth’s was rural.
Because of his popularity, a bad sign to many art world insiders, Wyeth came to represent middle-class values and ideals that modernism claimed to reject, so that arguments about his work extended beyond painting to societal splits along class, geographical and educational lines. One art historian, in response to a 1977 survey in Art News magazine about the most underrated and overrated artists of the century, nominated Wyeth for both categories.
Whatever else he may have been as a man, as a painter Wyeth was a visual reporter. If he wanted to “represent middle-class values and ideals” he could have done it as well as Rockwell. He had more on his mind, or perhaps in his eye, than Rockwell’s nostalgic fuzz. The art historian may have been right – underrated for his fearless and uncompromising eye, overrated as a rural balladeer, some modern-day Grandma Moses only with technique.
As often happens with American artists (Hopper disliked his seminal painting, “Nighthawks” as well), Wyeth apparently thought “Christina’s World” was a dud, calling it “a flat tire”. It isn’t. It is the most unselfconsciously powerful of his works, partly if not primarily because we can’t see Christina’s face. She toils with her back to us, her hair in a bun, the house which is the object of her monotonous, persistent effore hanging at horizon level. Her thin arms show little strain (perhaps she’s resting) but her head is lifted, her eyes on a line with the house. Her inner world is bounded by a curving line of demarcation cut across by car or wagon tracks – what passes for a lawn. She is outside it. There is a shed or small barn at a level with the house but there’s no detail. It’s just a building.
There’s nothing and no one else anywhere in the frame, not even a tree.
If the picture is a comment, it isn’t a comment on Christina but on her world, the spare, dry, undeveloped world of rural New England – of rural anywhere, really. You can call this “realism” I suppose since it isn’t an abstract but as a realistic portrayal of an actual scene, it fails miserably. The scene has been edited. Whatever was in it of richness or character or color has been ruthlessly removed and in their stead has been substituted a dank brown grittiness unrelieved, unleavened, unlightened.
I think you have to take editing as commentary. Certainly I did, and interpreted the picture as a pictorial representation of the dark side of New England, the venal, selfish, holier-than-thou side in which strangers are not forgiven nor slights forgotten, where we encourage the cruelty of virtuous self-righteousness and point with pride at a cripple who has to crawl “like a crab” when she goes out because she’s too proud to take help. This was the polar opposite of the Hollywood/Rockwell cliche of the taciturn but lovable, thrifty but flexible New Englander of, say, Holiday Inn or Mr Blandings’ Dream House. This was the frightening, mean, unforgiving face of poverty and religious mania. This was Hawthorne again, gloomy and foreboding, stark and unrelenting, nothing here to lift a spirit, always something just past the line of the firelight with red eyes and sharp teeth.
Most of Wyeth’s work was to maintain that same stark quality. His famous portraits of Helga are as spare as the rest of his work. There is little in the way of background and the colors remain muted. In fact, it would be hard to make an argument that Wyeth was a colorist of any type since his palette was largely brown, white, dark yellow and a smattering of dark green now and again, here and there. But if he was a NE sensualist he would have used reds and blues and golds and orange and pink….well, you get the picture. The NE spring and summer is a riot of color but in Wyeth’s pictures it is always late fall or early winter when the vegetation is all dead, the trees bare, and everything is a dingy collection of variations on the same color – soot black.
That this was taken by the art establishment to be some kind of homage to the cliche Rockwell New Englander was a matter of some surprise to me. It seemed so clueless that I came to believe it was deliberate. It has taken decades for New England to shake its hoary image as the land of skinflints and party-killers and here’s Wyeth bringing it all back again so let’s pretend he isn’t. But in truth that part 0f us has never left. It has been softened, maybe, by time and the slow but steady encroachment of modernism, gobbling farms and spitting out suburban developments, the welfare state buying wheelchairs for the Christinas and getting them regular food and perhaps even cable tv. But none of that really killed it.
It’s still there, still inside us, still making trouble with its stubborn refusal to allow for weakness or forgive disease and its equally dauntless aversion to generosity, tolerance…and art. Part of us has learned nothing, and if Wyeth didn’t teach us anything new, he put a part of our soul on view and dared us to deny it.
Thanks for this wonderful re-reading of Wyeth’s painting. one question: “skinflints and party-killers” – wow, was it ever actually all that bad in your neck of the woods? do you think the long, crooked finger of puritanism still pokes the region in some substantial and insipid way?
again, thanks for this musing. you’re a great writer.