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Thursday, September 7, 2017

The self-righteous art critic, he's everywhere

Did Wyeth appropriate Christina Olson's suffering for money? Only a really young person would ask such a question.

Christina’s World, 1948, Andrew Wyeth, courtesy Museum of Modern Art.
On his centenary year, I suppose I should join the throng and comment on Andrew Wyeth. There is little new to say. An indubitably great painter, he had the courage to embrace realism at a time when it was devalued. His body of work speaks for itself.

Then I read essays like this and think some rebuttal is necessary. Zachary Small is too young and too self-righteous by half. He understands neither the artist’s relationship to the model nor mid-century American culture.

Christina’s World is an abstract painting masquerading as a narrative. It could have as easily been titled Three Objects on a Yellow Field. At 31, the artist was not yet famous, but he was subject to great expectations. He had been tutored at home by his world-famous father, NC Wyeth. They rubbed elbows with other luminaries of their day.

His training and instincts pointed him to realism. Nevertheless, the art world was in open rebellion against representational painting.

Trodden Weed, 1951, Andrew Wyeth, courtesy here. Three years later, it addressed the same formal questions as Christina’s World, but is a much more self-revelatory painting.
Most of us would have melted in that kind of crucible. Wyeth, instead, created this enigmatic masterpiece. This is, of course, magical realism, not realism, a direct riff on his dad’s storytelling. Not only did he beautify Christina Olson, he radically redrew the Olson House.

In modern parlance, Zachary Small objects to Wyeth’s ‘appropriation’ of Christina’s story of courage and disability. On Wyeth's behalf, I claim a sort of fair-use exemption. That’s what artists have always done—taken particular pathos and raised it to be a universal statement.

In 1948, the United States was on the front edge of the biggest outbreak of poliomyelitis in its history. In 1952 alone, nearly 60,000 kids were infected with the virus. Thousands were paralyzed; more than 3000 died. Wealth was no insulator. There was no vaccine and no cure. Kids went into iron lungs and parents prayed.

Historians now believe that Christine Olson didn’t have polio, but rather Charcot–Marie–Tooth disease. That’s irrelevant. It wasn’t Wyeth’s understanding, and it wasn’t the American understanding in 1948. Wyeth was painting the polio epidemic.

I like to take students to the Farnsworth Museum to see whatever Wyeth sketches and drawings they have on display. They spell out Andrew Wyeth’s meticulous method. I find him, posthumously, to be a great teacher of painting.

Lovers, 1981, Andrew Wyeth, courtesy here.
But as to his finished paintings, I’m always deeply conflicted. They’re technically perfect, but hidden, reserved, and cool. As with Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth painted our isolation. Surrounded by hype, activity and people, twenty-first century man still lives a solitary existence.

Hopper told this story through buildings. Wyeth told it through faces and the human form. His paintings throw up masks I can’t get past. I find that most moving, and terrifying at the same time.


dave said...

In reading this I am struck by this very disingenuous paragraph near the end "Regardless, Wyeth became a wealthy artist. Though he reportedly offered the Olson family gifts, Christina ardently refused any money. So while he indirectly profited from the struggles of a disabled person, his subject never saw any of that wealth. The family continued to live in their decrepit farmhouse."

Is Small victim blaming Christina for her family's continuing poverty? Is he trying to imply that Wyeth exploitatively got rich from Christina's suffering? Is he intentionally ignoring his own reporting that Wyeth offered and Christina refused money?

I think Small is exploiting Christina himself to score points in some intellectual game.

Carol Douglas said...

He is trying, I think, to say that Wyeth exploitatively got rich from Christina's suffering. That would only be true, of course, if he perpetrated the suffering himself, which he didn't.

I have some experience with the old native Mainer. Offering money in that situation would have been dicey. It might well have been seen as insulting. Moreover, I don't know that by Maine standards they were poor, or even if such concepts translate well from the 21st century to modern-day Maine.

Wyeth said he saw Christina crawling to pick blueberries. While subsistence gathering may seem odd to modern Americans, it was certainly a part of Maine life in the 20th century. See "Blueberries for Sal" by Robert McCloskey as an example.

And thanks for writing.

Carol Douglas said...

I didn't mean "modern-day Maine." I meant 20th century Maine. Darn cold meds.

Art Maine said...

Good article, Carol. One "tell" in this critic's uninformed viewpoint was this: "Shortly after the Museum of Modern Art bought the artist's painting, Wyeth became a successful painter." Oh, really? Success for an artist isn't in the painting, but in what someone will say about it or pay for it? Yeh, right.

After beholding and exhibition of Andrew's pencil drawings, a pencil doesn't seem just a pencil. Great teaching tools by example.

Aside for that, I've always been amused by this painting, and by the realist Andrew Wyeth, for the painterly unrealistic scene of a house on a hill, that in real life is not on a hill, but right by the flat road. It's his signature realistic style, yet surely not a pictorial realist painting. I like to think that Andrew is winking at us all.

I had the good fortune to chat with Andrew in his late years about one of his models, who we both knew, Walter Anderson. Andrew had a mischievous side to himself as evidenced by his adventures with Walt.

And it's quite moving to see the outline of Andrew's simple headstone, (in the Olsen cemetery) silhouetted, with Christina's house in sunset light on a summer's eve.

Carol Douglas said...

Thank you. Very insightful comments.

Annette Koziol said...

Great article Carol.i always learn something new when I read your blog. Much that isn't about painting. There is a lot to learn about art and painting. But it's always deeper for me and not from an artists perspective, as you know. Thank you.

Carol Douglas said...

Thanks, Annette.