Editing a winter navigation page in my garden website which contained that quotation, I looked up “Andrew Wyeth” to find his date of death. That search led to his obituary in the New York Times: he died around this time of year, January 16th, in 2009. A bit coincidentally odd to be this time of year, but it was the discussion of his art and the illustration of the painting that became the icon of an Icon,”One picture encapsulated his fame. “Christina’s World” …” that drew me along this winter path of thoughts.
Remembering that at the cusp of adulthood, as I entered my twenties, this was one of my favorite pictures, and Andrew Wyeth joined a short list of favored painters… right next to Vincent Van Gogh. In the interior gallery of my mind, I surveyed how both of these painters have moved to the back of the room. Not because their paintings are in disfavor, but because I am more aware of their emotional dissonance, or rather more uncomfortable with it. I do not agree with the mythos surrounding these strong and powerfully recognizable styles- although I have to admire the art for all that.
I have changed, and my tastes have changed, but not in a linear way. In some ways I gravitate back towards those of my early adulthood, while some remain irrevocably different.
I look with new eyes at Wyeth’s work, now. With added connotations of the history of his subject, Christina Olson, and of his own opinions, which popularity and notoriety of a sort, haven given them. Still, it is the message of who we are as Americans, and how we see ourselves, that still seeps deeply into Wyeth’s canvases. It is a primitive and Puritan view that is rooted within our New England. And it is a mythos, a civitas, that is no longer extant in our society. I think it had largely faded when Wyeth’s popularity and reputation spurt forth, and it was a people who longed for it and sought to recapture it (if only in iconic objects) that gravitated to his art. That is probably the part of the message I am now uncomfortable with.
Still, I feel some admiration for the stillness and the distilled view of Wyeth’s paintings, just as I still love the color and movement of Van Gogh. The one with its celebration of the flat dimensions of watercolor and temperas and the other with a wildly exuberant impasto.
The New England character has moved to the background in the modern American culture. The Yankee with his frugality and dry, sardonic humor; no-nonsense assessment and determined “can-do” attitude; stripped down and flinty-eyed vision and emotions. It was uppermost in the Wyeth opus. Like the times, there were complex interplays of paradox going on.
A realist artist rebelling against an establishment artworld, surreptitiously posing as an iconoclastic avant garde. The conformist underbelly of the “revolutionary” exposed, while the rebellions harking back to a not quite exact replica of earlier traditions. That was the sixties and seventies in life reflecting art- and vice versa. The dance of a culture.
The art world was, and to some degrees still is, biased against realism, against pictorial representation especially of everyday subjects in the way the Dutch Golden Age portrayed them.  But something of Wyeth hearkened back to that, while so different in its gothic “spookiness”. He played to our uneasiness with dilapidated farm buildings, a world circumscribed by handicap and obstinate self sufficiency, plain and pockmarked terrible beauty. This, still holds attraction for me… not unlike ‘ The Milkmaid’ of Vermeer.
The world seems too busy now, too laden with frippery and hoo-ha, though I am usually an avid consumer of it.
So, I too am glad to try to recapture some of that former world, even though I know it is not within reach. Today’s thoughts, choices, and actions edit the world of our making for now and tomorrow. Our pictures remind us of time outside the immediate, a contextual idea board.
Maybe what most changed in my tastes and views is the desire now for hopefulness and promise, with less morose attention to the spare and melancholy landscapes of winter and fall. A greater balance to incorporate the clear colors of spring and the renewal of living without the overwhelming barrage of fragmented pieces of activity and blasts of color. Although a few accents of that are welcome, … in their time.
A life with enough whitespace to appreciate the art of it, and enough art to fill the space with experience, enjoyment, and meaning.
A life with all seasons, in turn.