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The Wide World of Wyeth

Taking Note

By Cristina V. Coletta

For obvious as well as for not so obvious reasons, Andrew Wyeth's 1948 painting Christina's World is one of my all-time favorite pictures. During the school year, it hangs on the wall of my room in Dunster House, a visual synopsis of another Christina's life, one far away from Harvard and my daily existence. With its clear, sweeping brush strokes, monochromatic color scheme, and spare format,Christina's World wipes trouble and anxiety from the mind of its viewer by providing a glimpse of a purer time preserved in the ambered golden tones of Wyeth's brush. Unlike most art critics who maintain that the woman's body in the foreground is twisted in agony and torture, I see yearning and hopefulness in her gesture. Turning away from us toward the home, reclining in the fields of plenty, she is a symbol of post-Second World War America--isolationist instead of worldly, an island of wealth in a sea of poverty and preoccupied with Midwestern values of decency and wholesomeness.

A comforting picture overall, one which suggests that its artist is imbued with similar values. In a crowd of fastliving, amoral 20th century artists, Wyeth would seem to be a sort of modern-day Jean Francois Millet, forsaking the sordidness of the city to paint human nature in its natural habitat, just as Wyeth himself finds solace in the woods of rural Maine.

Since last week's revelation that Wyeth has been painting a series of 200-plus portraits on the quiet for the past fifteen years, my estimation of him has dropped considerably. It's not that I mind him having done the series in the first place, but if he wasn't planning to tell anyone while he was painting them, why let the secret out now? With Wyeth walking around with a too-pleased-with-himself-for-words smile on his face and his wife, Betsy, talking about the paintings in terms of love and lovers, the entire episode smacks of a high-gloss publicity stunt. After all, he won't even discuss the Helga paintings with anyone--all he's agreed to do is to clarify what his wife's been saying about the artist/model relationship so that it will not be construed as anything but absolutely above-board.

Perhaps it's a rather morbid thought, but revelations of this sort are better made post-mortem. They add to the artist's integrity by consolidating his character as uninfluenced by monetary gain, they give their creator a sense of mystique and the art world a shot of magic and excitement. Just recall how thrilled we were last year when Harvard Professor of Music Christoph Wolff unearthed a heretofore unknown piece by Johann Sebastian Bach while sifting through the Yale University music archives. No thrills this time around, though, just a well-placed feeder in last September's issue of Art and Antiques magazine that set the Carl Bernsteins and Robert Woodwards of the art world hot on the trail of Helga.

The paintings are the same. Helga is another Christina in another world, this time more in tune with the essential earth than before, possibly a reflection of a more sagacious and older Wyeth's point of view. With age comes wisdom but also occasionally paranoia. Perhaps 69-year-old Wyeth felt that if he never said a word about the paintings while he was still alive, they would be misunderstood. Perhaps our castigation of the artist for his mute revelation is too harsh and premature. The calm and gentleness of his hidden secrets excuses almost anything.

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