What lies beneath

Different Strokes

 From Wyeth’s ‘Helga’ series.Andrew Wyeth, who was regarded as one of the best-known American artists of the 20th century, passed away early this year at the age of 91 in his home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, after a brief illness.

The ‘Painter of the People’, whose style and personality tantalised America, had a long and notable career spanning more than seven decades. He held his first solo exhibition of watercolours in New York when he was just twenty. The show attracted huge crowds; notwithstanding the Depression, all the works were sold out by the end of the second day.

In 1959, he sold his painting ‘Groundhog Day’ to the Philadelphia Museum for $31,000, the largest sum that a museum had ever paid for a work by a living American painter; three years later he sold ‘That Gentleman’ to the Dallas Museum of Art for $58,000 setting another record.

By early 1970s, his paintings were commanding high price of more than $100,000 apiece. Over the years, museums made millions of dollars selling Wyeth catalogues and souvenir reproductions alone, as Wyeth’s audience itself ran into millions. His retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2006 attracted the highest-ever attendance at the museum for a living artist when over 1,75,000 viewers visited the show in just over two weeks. 

Among his many works, Wyeth’s ‘Christina’s World’ (1948/Tempera on gessoed panel/81.9 x 121.3 cm) is considered to be among the most famous American paintings. The lonely figure in the picture is his neighbour, Christina Olson. Struck by polio and severely impaired in her ability to walk, Christina was forced to spend most of her waking time in and around her house. In Wyeth’s picture, she is seen sprawled on a secluded and sloping field facing her house in the distance. Her body is awkwardly twisted; and an unmistakable hint of tragedy pervades the image. “The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless,” explained Wyeth.

 ‘Christina’s World’ was painted when Wyeth was just 31. Purchased by and hung at Museum of Modern Art, New York, in December 1948, the painting became an instant hit touching the heart of thousands of visitors in a personal way.

Born with a faulty hip, Andrew was a sickly child, and got tutored at home by his father, Newell Convers Wyeth (1882–1944), one of the foremost illustrators of his time. Popularly known as N C, the elder Wyeth illustrated many classic children’s books, including Treasure Island, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Robin Hood. Andrew not only benefited greatly by watching his father work, but also developed strong artistic and personal bond with him. NC remained Andrew’s true friend till NC met with a tragic accident when a speeding train ploughed into his car. 

 Throughout his career, Andrew found the subject matter for his paintings right in the neighbourhood and that too within a couple of miles of the towns he lived in. He painted objects and people which were around him in a remarkably realistic and unique style; every strand of hair, every blade of grass, every ray of sunlight was rendered with precision. “I paint the things I know best,” he confessed. “Art, to me, is seeing. I think you have got to use your eyes as well as your emotion, and one without the other just doesn’t work. That’s my art...The commonplace is the thing, but it’s hard to find. Then if you believe in it, have a love for it, this specific thing will become a universal.”

Andrew Wyeth was a man of studied reclusiveness and preferred to work in seclusion and imbibe landscapes which he saw in his lonely walks. “You see, I’m a secretive bastard. I wish I could paint without me existing, that just my hands were there.” He would also pride that there were no rules in his work. “I don’t really have studios. I wander around — around people’s attics, out in fields, in cellars, any place I find that excites me. I dream a lot. I do more painting when I’m not painting. It’s in the subconscious… Sometimes I do my best work after the models have gone away, purely from memory. And that’s what makes me laugh when critics say I’m photographic. I’m not photographic at all. Nothing against the camera, but it doesn’t work with me.”

Helga pictures

In his lengthy artistic career, Andrew worked with several models. But it was the series with Helga Testorf — a musician, baker, caregiver, and friend of the Wyeths in Chadds Ford — which attracted widespread attention and caused quite a commotion. Wyeth executed a suite of nearly 240 paintings and drawings with Helga over a 15-year period (1971-85); she was 38 and he, 53 when the first drawings were made. Many of the paintings and drawings in the collection were impeccably rendered nude studies.

The revelation that neither (Wyeth’s wife) Betsy nor (Helga’s husband) John knew anything about the paintings during the entire period raised public curiosity and excitement. The ‘Helga’ collection became a sensation when it was acquired by Pennsylvania collector Leonard Andrews and exhibited coast-to-coast in prestigious galleries in 1987.

 “Such close attention by a painter to one model over so long a period of time is a remarkable, if not singular, circumstance in the history of American art,” wrote John Wilmerding, deputy director, National Gallery of Art, Washington, in the exhibition catalogue. “As we look at Helga depicted nude and clothed, indoors and out, asleep and awake, in different seasons and times of day, we are led to think of those venerable cycles in earlier European and American art.”

 During his lifetime, Wyeth acquired millions of admirers. Among them was Hollywood star and director, Charlton Heston who considered Wyeth to be a ‘complete’ painter and not just a human camera obscura. “Laurence Olivier is widely conceded to be the finest actor of the (20th) century. Like Wyeth, his technical equipment was total; he could do anything with his voice and body. But he could touch your heart or rake your soul not just with this, but instead a wordless glance back over his shoulder. The mystery of it moved you. So it is with Wyeth. Be dazzled, if you will, by what Wyeth does with his brushes, but look for what he puts beneath. Look for the mystery.”

 Wyeth also faced many carping critics who dismissed him to be a formula painter, fabulist, sentimentalist and a mere illustrator, who knew little about colour. He was branded as ‘an old master and master showman’. When his ‘Helga’ pictures were exhibited, art critic Robert Hughes felt that never in the history of American art had a group of paintings been so fluffily hyped.

 Wyeth reacted to criticism with characteristic candor. “People only make you swerve. I won’t show anybody anything I’m working on. If they hate it, it’s a bad thing, and if they like it, it’s a bad thing. An artist has to be ingrown to be any good.”  As cheekily he once compared himself to a prostitute because “I’m never off duty!”

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