Friday, 8 March 2019

Andrew Wyeth, a major 20th Century American artist loved by the people, loathed by the art establishment

Christina's World (1948), Andrew Wyeth
I was recently trawling through Pinterest, looking for work by 20th Century American artists - preferably ones I'd previously been unaware of. I recognised Christina's World...

...and the name of the artist rang a bell. Dozens of paintings by Andrew Wyeth subsequently appeared on my timeline, and their quality made me realise they were the work of a truly gifted painter. Why, I wondered, was he never mentioned in television documentary surveys of "modern" American artists, alongside the inevitable Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Roy Lichtenstein?

I meant to read up on the artist, but got distracted, so when I recently saw a new Sky Arts documentary entitled Wyeth on the EPG, I recorded it. It tells a fascinating story. Andrew Wyeth was born in 1917 in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. His father was a well-known illustrator (sufficiently eminent to receive visits from the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Mary Pickford) who took a keen interest in his five children, forever feeding their creative imaginations - three of them became artists, one was an inventor, and one a composer. N.C. Wyeth's seemingly obsessive interest in his children's development was especially important to Andrew, who, as a sickly child, was mostly home-schooled. In his teens, he began painting illustrations in his father's studio (and in his father's name). He didn't want to be an illustrator, being more interested in landscape, portraiture and interiors, and spent the rest of his somewhat insular life painting in these genres. He was 31 when the Museum of Modern Art in new York bought Christina's World (a haunting image of a severely disabled neighbour, who, refusing to use wheelchairs, had literally crawled out of her house - the one she's looking back at). Here's a portrait of an alcoholic local whom Wyeth befriended.

Within a few years, Wyeth had become the richest artist in America, and fans lined up around the block whenever he mounted a new exhibition. This was too much for the art establishment, which had initially clasped him to its collective bosom. Wyeth's crimes included being too darned accessible, too popular, and too independent: after all, what's the world coming to when a contemporary artist doesn't require the patronage of the intellectual elite - especially when his work doesn't need self-appointed "experts" to explain what it means, and when the approval of the critics isn't necessary to his continuing success? Panicked by their irrelevance, they punished the upstart by suddenly deciding that he was in fact a minor regional artist whose daubs were examples of inauthentic, emotionless kitsch.

Wyeth's reaction to this furious onslaught was to turn his back on the metropolitan art world. He spend the rest of his long life obsessively producing haunting, emotionally-charged, symbol-laden, totally unkitsch paintings in and around his family's home in Pennsylvania and a summer place in Maine. 

The Sky documentary paints a portrait of a decidedly odd, solitary, secretive man. Wyeth had a habit of making himself part of his neighbours' lives in a borderline-creepy way: in at least two instances - the Olsens in Maine and the Koerners in Pennsylvania -  he befriended families living nearby, kept turning up at their houses, and then basically moved in with them, painting them and their houses, coming and going as he pleased. One of the families actually allowed him to use an upstairs room to work in.

But perhaps the oddest episode in Wyeth's life involved German-born Helga Testorf, whom he met at the Koerners' farm. Without the knowledge of his wife (who acted as his extremely efficient business manager) or Helga's husband, Wyeth produced 247 unsentimental, unidealised studies of her in a fourteen year period up to 1985. The first anyone knew about it was when he sold all of the paintings (apart from a few he had given to friends - including, bizarrely, one entitled Lovers to his wife) to a  businessman, who put them on show in 1987, and then sent the collection on tour. (The critics reacted with their customary generosity). 

As I said, an odd man. Here are two of the Helga paintings:

If you have access to Sky, the Wyeth documentary is still available. If you can't, here's a 2018 BBC documentary about the painter presented by Michael Palin:

I'll end with some more of my favourite Wyeth paintings:

Distant Thunder (1961)

1 comment:

  1. Perfect, along with the Christian Krohg post, a gifted artist telling the story clearly about two gifted artists telling the story clearly.