I first encountered Andrew Wyeth's work as a teenager and had never heard of the man, never heard of Christina's World, and knew absolutely nothing about him. I continued to know absolutely nothing about him until about 2003, when I attended the Brandywine Museum as part of an art class and came face to face with his work. After that, I spent a lot of effort staring at his work, exploring the museum and grounds, and contemplating just what it is about Wyeth's work.
But to return to my first encounter. I was in high school and was on a school trip to New York. From my small town roots, New York City was very far away. There's not a lot I remember from the various places we visited on that trip, but I remember Christina's World. I don't even know what museum holds it, but I remember walking into the room and stopping dead in my tracks.
My teenage heart understood exactly what Wyeth had depicted. I didn't know that Christina was a real woman, suffering from polio; all I knew is that Wyeth had painted a portrait of what my life felt like. Lost, alone, helpless, eyes turned desperately to the so-far-away house, the cold, forbidding house, a house that would never be a refuge, even if I managed to reach it.
Widely parodied, instantly recognizable the way Grant Wood's American Gothic is widely recognizable, both paintings win the contempt of painfully hip modern critics who turn up their noses at an artist who paints America. Apparently, a depiction of America that is not ironic, surreal, or critical is, by definition, schlock.
I am acquainted with people like that. They're the ones who refuse to shake my hand when I introduce myself. Apparently, shaking hands is schlock, too. They are the same people, who, when finding out the rural community I live in, announce, "You must move to the city immediately." Why? So I can live next door to people like you?
I'm a redneck. I'm part Native American, part Southern Cracker, rural, poor, working class. I have a mullet, thank you very much. When people spout off about the awfulness of rednecks, I point out to them that I am a redneck, and I don't like what they're saying. Whereupon they inform me, "You're not a redneck." By which they mean, that because I am articulate and have a brain, I do not fulfill their stereotype of what a redneck is.
This reminds me of when I was 13, I was speaking to a black man, trying to explain the negative traits of some black folks I didn't like. I said, "They're niggers. You know what I mean?" He looked me in the eye and said, "I know exactly what you mean." With his clear-eyed gaze he made me realize how use of loaded language communicated nothing but my own shortcomings. Thereafter I resolved to say what I actually meant, and to focus on the individual as the individual, and not as a representative of a larger group of people.
As I have discovered over the ensuing decades, people constantly dismiss individuals when they ought to be dismissing stereotypes. Thus we return to those folks who inform me, "You're not a redneck." I am in fact a member of the rural poor who works out of doors. But when they say "redneck" that's not what they mean, is it? As they have told me, they are referring to a negative example of that type. By which they mean a bigot. When they finally stumble into that explanation, I say, "If you mean 'bigot,' say 'bigot.' Don't dismiss an entire community by using pejorative language.
Andrew Wyeth painted a lot of things, but the only ones I am qualified to have an opinion on are the rural scenes around Chadd's Ford, Pennsylvania. I've roamed the area--now largely built up with trendy coffee shops and boutiques, but the Brandywine River is still there, and there are still farms in the area. Knowing the area, I know that Wyeth has painted an accurate depiction. Even when he rearranges elements of the scenes to improve the composition, he has still faithfully depicted the country. He is bearing witness.
Some have criticized that his work never changed; that it never showed anything new; that it did not expand the horizons of American art. To them I say, "Bullshit." There's more to art that continual invention. The ability to see and value the ordinary is all too rare. It isn't sentimentality to appreciate the ordinary. Wyeth, with his bleak landscapes, is entirely different from the bowdlerized landscapes of Thomas Kinkade. Kinkade paints a fantasy vision of an America that never was. Wyeth paints America as it is.
As a poet, this was something I had to understand. I made several trips to the Brandywine Museum and walked the grounds and visited the Wyeth home as I struggled to decide what poetry is about. As for someone else, I cannot say, but for me it is about bearing witness. There is a particular Wyeth painting that especially speaks to me, "Trodden Weed." It is a portrait of the artist's boots as he is walking across a snowy scene and treads a weed underfoot. The weed is a thin black line, almost invisible, but the artist stops and notices.
Yes. That is the painter's eye, that is the poet's eye, to notice things others do not. As I learned more about the painting, it spoke more deeply to me. The boots were Cavalier boots that Wyeth had had since he was a child. Homeschooled, he spent a lot of time in fantasy play pretending to be Robin Hood and acting out other famous stories, many of which were painted by his father, N. C. Wyeth, who illustrated many classics of children's literature, such as Treasure Island. What grown man still wears his childhood dress-up boots? And why? I think I know. Above and beyond that, Wyeth was recuperating from an extended illness, and this was his first walk outside. Wyeth, who must have been feeling his own mortality at that point, stopped and noticed the mortality of the weed under his foot.
New and old are not valuable in and of themselves. They are valuable for what they give us. Mortality is an old trope in art, but that doesn't mean we should stop painting it or writing poetry about it. Death is an eternal reality, and Wyeth grasps that. When he paints scenes of living trees and blossoms, they are not the sentimental effulgence of Thomas Kinkade, but a keen appreciation for the moment, a moment that will pass away.
The criticism that Wyeth's work never changed is wrongheaded and completely misses what Wyeth was about. Wyeth achieves the universal and eternal by focussing on the individual and immediate. If his work seems unchanging, it is because he has succeeded in capturing the essence of what he paints. It is only seen as unchanging because the critics are unaware of the changes. I would like to know the locations of the various paintings Wyeth has executed around Chadd's Ford. I'm certain that if I hiked in his footsteps, I would find that the reality underlying the paintings has changed--and that his subsequent paintings of the same subject have changed as well.
The scenes seem generic ('generic' is the adjective for 'genre') only to the impatient eye that doesn't bother to engage the reality that Wyeth is depicting. Because I'm from around here, I can see it. Those high and mighty art critics in Boston or New York can't see it, aren't trying, and have never been here. I actually live in Maryland, in the Tidewater, and although Chadd's Ford is a mere 44 miles away, the terrain and architecture change dramatically. I can tell when I've crossed the Mason-Dixon Line by the changes in the buildings, the shape of the land, the colors of the construction and countryside. Wyeth has painted the countryside around Chadd's Ford and painted it truly. Nowhere else in the world looks like that. By focussing on the truth of the locality, he has achieved the universal.
When I learned about Wyeth's death, I went and looked at Christina's World online again. I am older and wiser now, but the painting has not lessened its impact. I can find a million more associations in that painting, and it gives an accurate depiction of how I feel about a lot of things. First, there is my own disability that I must deal with, and I can well envision myself in the predicament of the woman with polio in the painting. But it also symbolizes more than that. It still depicts the estrangement I feel. After thirty years of trying, I still haven't reached the house.
Good art speaks to the silence in our souls and gives voice to what we hardly knew needed speaking. Christina's World is still speaking to me, and the art of Andrew Wyeth is still informing my experience of the world, my poetry, and who I am in this American world.