Art in a minute: Andrew Wyeth
The New York Times once called Andrew Wyeth “the last authentic survivor of a very endangered 19th-century species.” In this edition of Art in a Minute, KAZoART brings you up close and personal with an anti-modern artist and the secrets that drove him to create captivatingly sinister art for over five decades.
Andrew Wyeth is…
…the creator of haunting images
Born in rural Pennsylvania, Wyeth’s beginnings sound humble. He was home-schooled due to poor health and was brought up on the poetry of Thoreau and Robert Frost. His father was a well-known illustrator who fostered a love for nature in the minds of his five children. He learned the art of egg tempera, a technique which uses egg yolk in the paint and grew to master it quickly.
When Andrew was just 28, his father was killed when a train collided with his car that was stuck on the tracks. Partly due to the violent nature of his father’s passing, Wyeth’s style shifted and he began using painstakingly slow techniques that resulted in eerie depictions with Gothic undercurrents.
His process is unique in that he takes everyday subject matter and pulls its darkest emotions to the surface. His art has a clear dimension of disturbance – something that could’ve been suppressed but was allowed to leak through. Perhaps the most troubling aspect is that we cannot point out which specific element is the most untoward, it’s simply the general aura of his work.
…the most underrated and overrated
Prior to his untimely death, Wyeth’s father was well-connected in the art world which helped boost his son’s artistic career. Andrew Wyeth’s style was difficult to characterise and seen differently by critics. Some viewed his work as having a “strong emotional resonance” while others referred to it as “corny Americana.” Above all, he was a realist painter.
He admired the work of his precursor, another American realist, Edward Hopper. Unfortunately, Wyeth and Hopper were often seen in contrasting lights. Of the two, abstract expressionist Mark Rothko said, “Wyeth is about the pursuit of strangeness, but he is not whole, as Hopper is whole.”
In 1976, he was given a one-man show at the MoMA in New York. This was the first time they had ever awarded one to a living artist. His presence there was polarising. When asked to identify the most underrated and overrated artists in 20th Century America, art historian Robert Rosenblum only needed one name to tick both boxes: Andrew Wyeth.
…a man with a secret
In 1987, the National Gallery in Washington D.C. took a controversial step and invited Wyeth to show his “Helga pictures.” Unbeknownst to his wife, family and let alone the public, Wyeth had been secretly painting the family friend, Helga Testorf for almost fifteen years (1971-1985). Not only had they been meeting in secret but Helga had been sitting for him in a variety of poses, indoor and outdoor, nude and clothed. Regardless of the setting and wardrobe, every work was unabashedly intimate. Wyeth’s treatment of her figure reminds critics of women in Manet and Botticelli paintings.
When explaining this series of 200 paintings and drawings, Wyeth said: “I have to have a personal contact with my models. I have to become enamored. Smitten. That’s what happened when I saw Helga.”
At its end, the show had been dubbed “voyeuristic” and “traumatising” by some. But such is typical of Wyeth’s style. Among art historians, Helga is unique in that she “has the curious distinction of being the last person to be made famous by a painting”.
What he said
“I do an awful lot of thinking and dreaming about things in the past and the future – the timelessness of the rocks and the hills – all the people who have existed there. I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape – the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.”Andrew Wyeth
Did you know?
The cinematography in M. Night Shyamalan’s 2004 film The Village was inspired by Wyeth’s paintings. The director, writer and producer credits Wyeth’s work for the minimalism, various grays, eerie views from one doorway looking into another, empty chairs, and sparsely-made beds. It all played into his depiction of an isolated separatist community in a Utopian world.
His greatest works
Andrew Wyeth-inspired work on KAZoART
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