The Unnerving Visions of Andrew Wyeth

One of the 20th centuries most iconic and controversial painters

I’ve noticed that various artists, movements or periods will sometimes become a part of my visual thinking the same way music gets stuck on repeat in my head. Often times while discovering or perhaps rediscovering art, I can become fixated on a specific subject matter, style, or medium the same way I can get hooked by the same song, artist or genre of music. However, no matter the kind of art, I find that the emotional current of a work is ultimately what I judge it on whether I’m conscious of it or not. Maybe judge isn’t even the right word… rather it determines how much time I spend with it? I can recollect certain images or compositions that have repeatedly grabbed me and held my attention for long periods of time simply because there was something about them that was consistently able to reward my patience.

Recently, I’ve been hypnotized by Andrew Wyeth’s paintings for this specific reason. There is a distinct character to all of his paintings… they share a common tone that stems from the same uniquely, well, Wyeth-based place. His work has something slightly uncanny and just plain off about it, as if Wyeth is showing us the stiff American imagery of a Grant Wood painting that somehow exists within the same bleak emotional space as a Dali landscape. This week I wanted to talk about two of his works, one being his seminal painting Christina’s World.

Andrew Wyeth, Winter 1946, 1946

Winter 1946 is one of his more famous paintings. Immediately I noticed the juxtaposed directions that the figure (a neighbor of Wyeth’s) is moving in. His arm is outstretched from his side in the opposite direction of his body’s momentum, and the tassel on the side of his hat indicates this movement. It looks as though he is either pulling something or being pulled himself. The barren and flat landscape gives the piece a desolate feel, like it is somehow recognizable but doesn’t quite exist anywhere we’ve seen before. I would later read that this was the first piece Wyeth would paint after the death of his father, who was struck and killed by a Train over the hill of where this piece is set. After his father’s death, his art’s tone would become more solemn and melancholic as indicated by the piece above. “It was me, at a loss—that hand drifting in the air was my free soul, groping,” Wyeth stated, regarding the piece’s place as an embodiment of his grief.

Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World, 1948

Wyeth’s highest-profile work is, of course, Christina’s World. Painted two years after Winter 1946, Christina’s World was made using egg tempura paint and depicts his polio-afflicted neighbor near his home in Cushing, Maine. Wyeth’s wife would ultimately sit in the pose for the final piece. Christina Olson was a woman who lived as Wyeth’s neighbor for years before the painting was made, and he would often observe her crawling everywhere due to her vehement aversion to using a wheelchair. This particular piece has been my new desktop background for the last week because there is something so intensely despondent and forlorn about it that I just can’t help wondering what Wyeth felt himself for his intuition to follow such an idea. Christina’s World is often associated with a deep sense of longing and melancholy. Critics and artists alike have referred to his work as abstract in different ways, however this claim has been met with a great deal of contention. I can understand why one would slap the “abstract” label on this piece however; it seems as thought he landscape is almost too barren to exist in nature, rather it seems more like it could be the setting of a memory or dream where you only remember the things that made you feel something. Wyeth believed his challenge in making this painting to be a depiction of the conviction and dedication of his neighbor, and while he succeeds at showing that, abled-bodied folks cannot absorb it without also digesting the intricacies of what it could mean to be disabled in the way Wyeth’s subject is. In short, I find that Christina’s World, among other Wyeth pieces, sits as a static vision separate from any distinct genre. His work has a flavor that lingers long after you’ve finished staring at his paintings, whether you like it or not.

Features image is Wyeth’s Wind from the Sea, 1947

Source 1, Source 2, Source 3

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